Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

Green Earth Recycle   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]I freeze as I see the screen. A panic rises in my head. This can’t be! Immediately, control kicks in. Breathe. Think. Act. Still in denial of what I see, I hard reboot the laptop.

I’m surprised by how calm I am as the display lights up and the lines are still flickering across the screen. I locate a crack on the side of the LCD. In my head I go through my packing routine. Yes, this end usually sits at the bottom of my backpack. So I did damage the laptop when I slipped on the ice earlier that morning. Why now?

I take a deep breath. Beautiful Full HD display, barely a year old; now it is toast. Calm, but gutted I reach for my phone and hack in an email to Mark. I won’t make my deadline today.

Ironically, this episode happened during final revisions of the article you are now reading.

Introduction

Every year, consumer electronics exhibitions around the world present new high tech devices; expensive toys that come with many promises. They aim to make our lives easier, more fun, super connected, and of course they are status symbols. Moreover, they are an electronic manifestation of the ideals that drive our society: bigger, better, faster, more.

On the bright side, high-end electronics demonstrate advanced engineering and stunning design solutions. However, novelty tends to fade quickly. Only a few months later the hardware is outdated, the design is stale, and the shelves are stocked with fresh models. Nothing ages as quickly and permanently as consumer electronics.

Gadgets get discarded at ever faster rates and account for millions of tons of consumer electronic waste every year. To feed production, more and more resources are claimed and we are beginning to suffer from the immense burden on the natural and social environment.

What is the purpose of driving the technological advancement? Does it help us create something that will last? Where are we going so fast? We don’t know. Or do we?

The Bonding

Jane* carefully places the laptop on her living room table. It’s a used HP that a friend gave to her. Jane is excited about the prospect of using the Internet from her wing chair, rather than having to crunch in front of the old desktop in her bedroom.

Jane has family all over the country and many friends around the world. She loves to stay in touch with them and finds that the Internet is a blessing. One of her grandchildren set her up on Facebook, but she found it too confusing. However, she happily uses Skype, email, browses the Internet, plays games, and does online banking. Now she curiously watches as I try to connect the laptop to her WiFi.

Woman with Laptop   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Woman with Laptop via Shutterstock

For its owner, a new gadget is not just a financial investment; it also is a major time and not least an emotional commitment. Something new enters your life, you let it in, spend hours setting it up, trust it with personal data, dress it up with accessories, and share your most intimate experiences with it. It becomes an essential part of your daily routine and a bearer of secrets. Just imagine the horror if you lost your smartphone! We deeply depend on our tools and, even more so, we become emotionally attached.

The more we depend on our gadgets and the less we actually understand them, the more attached we tend to become. Jane for example uses her computer only for the most basic tasks. She is not well versed in technology and although she is careful, she often needs help fixing small bugs. Jane is a confirmed optimist and has many hobbies that keep her busy away from the computer, but she does get slightly frustrated when she is cut off from her far away friends.

Jane grew up in a small isolated town. Goods and the mail were delivered only once a week, the phone line that eventually came was precious. Being one of the younger siblings, she received a lot of hand-me-downs. Although she now can afford a more luxurious lifestyle, she still treats all her belongings with great care and believes in using things until they break. When things do perish, Jane wonders why it is so much cheaper to replace them with something new. And especially with consumer electronics, repairing is rarely an option. Jane shrugs it off as “that’s the way things are.”

From an engineer who learned his profession in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), I learn his peers prided themselves in producing only the best quality and they built devices that would last for decades. In principle, that is not different from engineers elsewhere. However, material resources were scarce and what these people did have was time; endless amounts of time.

We worked on the first computer-operated tuner of the GDR. A microprocessor that converted the signal from analog to digital produced a 50 KHz error. The device was examined in detail and eventually someone identified the component that caused the error. A different type of plastic had changed the inductance of a coil. Changing back to the original plastic corrected the error.” – Norbert Storch

Computer Engineer   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Computer Engineer via Shutterstock

Things are different today. Companies cannot afford to track down defects all the time; where possible quick fixes are applied. And the tools are different, too. A hardware loss today is often equal to an irreversible loss of personal data, including emotional pieces like photos and private messages.

Devices like laptops or smartphones are much more integral parts of our lives than the electronics of the past. We are in an intimate relationship with technology. Recall the last time you were saving up for and finally bought a new gadget. Wasn’t it a little like this: You fell in love with a sexy design and promising features. Once you held it in your hands it was the most exciting thing you ever had. You got to know the new one through rose-colored glasses, you interacted with it every day, constantly trusting it with more private information, thereby bonding and deepening your relationship. And maybe you are still in the honeymoon phase with that latest acquisition of yours. But consider this: should serious issues surface, you are now committed.

Replacing a laptop or a phone then is a lot like breaking up. As issues deepen, you hold on and try to fix them. However, no counseling in the world can mend broken hardware or bridge serious software or hardware incompatibilities. There comes a time when you must part with your gadget. You know that migrating data will be a painful process. But once you get excited about the new one in your life, it’s all forgotten. You’re in love and everything comes easily.

The tendency to bond, even with lifeless objects, is very human and has served us well. Jane for example has had her desktop computer for many years. It’s a piece of her home and part of her daily routine. If everything kept working reliably, she would never see the need to replace it. Such loyalty to a piece of hardware, however, can be a problem, both for the user and for companies that must sell to stay in business.

Built to Break?

What keeps our economy going is the perpetual transfer of money. Companies inherently depend on customers to buy their products. One questionable technique that has been said to sustain consumption is designing products to break prematurely.

The technical term for this approach is planned obsolescence. It describes an approach to consciously limit product lifetime through the use of weak spots or inferior material. The concept can also be extended to new software no longer running on older hardware or vice versa. Planned obsolescence guarantees lasting consumption and a growing economy at the expense of consumers.

Countless stories of products designed to break have been circulating. In fact, there is a prominent and well documented case: the light bulb. It is the first known victim of planned obsolescence, as well as the subject of the world’s first cartel agreement. If you want to explore this topic more deeply, nothing will tell the story better than the documentary Pyramids of Waste: The Lightbulb Conspiracy.

The idea of planned obsolescence made me curious. Sure enough, I have a friend whose printer had stopped working out of the blue after three years of faithful service. Neil earns a living in IT and has been fixing people’s computers for years. His device had been printing flawlessly until it suddenly quit.

I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, so I called customer support.” Neil is redirected to a repair center in Berlin. He explains what the issue is and when mentioning the printer model, the lady on the other end quickly tells him that they are not able to fix the device. Neil is stunned. Had he not been sent to the repair center by the manufacturer itself?

Neil remains persistent: “Why is it not possible to repair the device? You haven’t even seen it!” “This model is not meant to be repaired. The manufacturer does not produce any spare parts for it” the voice on the other end responds. She recommends Neil to take the printer to a recycling station and buy a new one.

Neil challenges her: “So which current printer model would be repairable?” Slightly unsettled, the support lady admits “I am not authorized to tell you.” And then she offers a surprisingly simple explanation.

E Waste   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: E-Waste via Shutterstock

When Neil subsequently called the printer company to confirm this information and complain, they were surprised that the repair center had provided him with such forthright explanation and advice. Eventually, Neil received the following email, which confirmed the information given by the repair center:

It is indeed true that for some of our products we do not produce spare parts or keep them in stock.

The production of spare parts, their storage, and repair costs are equal to the costs of producing a new unit. Therefore the provision of spare parts is not economical compared to the procurement of a new product.

Presently, all products of the segment A4 inkjet printer (…) will not be repaired, but will be exchanged in case of a defect. – global  producer of inkjet printers

We don’t know why the printer broke and chances are it died of natural causes. However, the fact that high-end consumer electronics are not designed to be repaired, further reveals the troubled mindset at the core of the issue.

The Role of Industrial Design

I began wondering whether there was method to the madness and turned to a few of the people responsible for product design: industrial designers.

Sijme Geurts is a young industrial designer from the Netherlands. I meet him on Skype and, since I have known him for some time, am direct in asking him what he knows about planned obsolescence. “It was not a topic during my studies” he says. But Sijme explains that industrial designers routinely estimate how long an item will be used. Not surprisingly, they can design a product to last for a long time or break much sooner.

Sijme   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

Sijme pulls out a demonstration object. “I bought this when I forgot the original one at home while traveling.” It’s a third party iPhone cable that was used for only a few days. “You can clearly see how crooked it is.” Visible through the plastic mantle are little bends, which indicate sites where the cable might potentially break. Sijme later sends me a photo which shows the original cable next to the cheap third-party one. “They probably used cheap material, for example low-grade copper” Sijme explains and adds: “The quality users perceive can be different than the actual quality they receive.” This example also highlights a point that most of us understand intuitively, but it’s worth remembering: durability can be influenced by the choice of material. And the material is decided during the design stage.

iPhone Cables   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

However, poor product quality usually isn’t intentional. Poor designs, use of poor material, or poor manufacturing are consequences of enormous financial pressure. Manufacturers must lower prices to remain competitive within the market and the quality is what suffers first. In the end, it’s the consumer’s choice, whether the cheaper or the better quality products prevail.

Meanwhile, most consumers don’t know much about the actual material composition of a product. Especially when it comes to electronic devices, most consumers are not able to distinguish between high and low quality material. Moreover, most of the key components are hidden inside the product’s body. How could Sijme have known that the cable was made with poor material? The price might have been an indication, but how do you know whether something is just adequately priced or hopelessly overpriced, as some brands are?

What makes the situation even trickier is that designers are able to influence the user’s perception of the product’s quality without actually using material of a higher quality. Sijme reflects on a project he and fellow students did together with a Dutch company. They prepared a life cycle assessment of an alarm clock. For this purpose they completely disassembled the device and examined its interior. What they found were metal coil transformers which accounted for much of the item’s weight. Sijme knows from experience that much lighter transformers exist. However, in the case of this device, the weight might also contribute to a user’s perception of quality. Sijme explains that when you pick up one of those alarm clocks, you will perceive it as a quality product, even when all you feel is excess weight.

Altering perceptions and seduction aren’t concepts invented by humans. They are at play everywhere in nature. Flowers, for example, attract insects and birds with alluring smells and bright colors. While consuming the nectar of different specimen, these animals pollinate the flowers and contribute to the plant’s survival. It’s a give and take.

Our economy works much the same symbiotic way. Companies offer attractive products, consumers spend money, and the revenue is invested into producing new products. Production creates employment, i.e. an opportunity for consumers to earn a living and purchase the next generation of products. The problem with this complex cycle is that it has many appendages that are dead ends and the resulting problems are accumulating.

Designing to Meet Human Needs

A few days after interviewing Sijme, I get to speak with Karl* an Industrial Designer who teaches at a small university in the US. Karl has had a moving career, which took him overseas to study design and begin working for a foreign company.

He remembers that everything he learned from his favorite professors was focused on quality. “Fashion and design seduction were frowned upon.” He still believes that quality never goes out of style. “People might pursue quality because things can continue being useful for a longer time with obvious reductions in ecological impact.” Karl refuses to believe in planned obsolescence, but he notes: “Humans can be fickle and defining ‘quality’ is definitely a more complex challenge now.

In the early 1980s Karl began working for a small design company that had earned international recognition throughout the 1970s. When Karl joined them, they had just been signed to do exclusive work for an influential electronic manufacturer.

Karl fondly remembers this time: “When coming to work, it was like there was a big piece of design cake waiting on my desk every day. It was the most exciting, engaging, and demanding time of my professional career. I truly treasure those design experiences.” But after five years of designing the latest and fanciest products, Karl had growing questions. He started wondering who was using all the products he was designing, how they were being used, where the materials came from, and where they eventually ended up. He calls these critical insights his golden steps towards beginning to understand the concept of sustainability.

Several “Aha!” moments contributed to his mind shift. Back then, Karl enjoyed visiting thrift stores for fun and research as a young designer. He shares that on one such visit, he spotted a big cardboard box in the electronics section; it was labeled ‘10 for $1′. Curious what might be sold off this cheaply, he peeked in. To his horror, he discovered a collection of keyboards that he had designed just a year and a half earlier. Karl chuckles. “Those were the lucky ones. The not-so-lucky ones probably ended up in the landfill.

Girl with keyboard   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image Credits: Greenpeace

Filled with deepening questions about industrial design, Karl went in search of answers. He found that the majority of designers back then didn’t think often about recycling. Their main design priorities were solving questions of material performance, function, and aesthetics. Karl says he truly believes that everyone was just trying to create the best product possible, thinking it would be there forever and like him, they were shocked when it wasn’t so.

Many discussions revolve around the motives of companies. Is there anyone we can blame for waste and bad products? Are companies taking advantage of everything in the name of profit? Is this all a big conspiracy? Karl has come to the conclusion that companies are not inherently evil: “No, I don’t think they are trying to steal from or hurt people or the planet. They are just trying to meet their own and others’ human needs.” Their purpose is to create products that customers want and secure the jobs of their employees. And after all, it’s the consumers who keep the wheels in this complex system spinning.

Today Karl teaches at a university that focuses on user-centered design. Students are taught to think about the user first, to research users’ needs extensively, observe them respectfully, (attempt to) understand their behavior, and then try to satisfy the needs of that behavior through various design options, including products, services, and systems. Thoughts about creating desire or looking only at profits are discouraged. The promise is that focusing on the user and all their needs (social, economic, environmental) will generate more than enough business, while other approaches are more risky, especially for society and the planet as a whole.

The Changing Consumer Electronics Market

The pressure for economic survival and the desire to succeed in the market, fuel the creativity of all industries. Companies vigorously compete for customer shares and try to appeal to consumers with ever new features. Knowing that in the end consumption decides what products prevail, engineers and designers are aiming to meet consumer demands.

Steve Jobs was right when he said people don’t necessarily know what they want. However, we – the people – do know what we struggle with! We adopt certain behaviors or put up with something because that’s the only way we know. But it doesn’t mean that it is the only way to solve the task. The role of designers should be to observe what people do, find a smarter solution, and hope that it catches on.

Boy with Apple   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Boy with Apple via Shutterstock

Let’s take smartphones and laptops for example. Switching from one device to the next is a big obstacle for most people, much due to the difficulty of migrating personal preferences and data. What has partially solved this challenge is the rise of Cloud-based services and improved synchronization tools, aided by the availability of cheap server space and Internet bandwidth. It’s a creative solution for a simple challenge.

Over the past few years, consumers have been entering a paradigm shift. We are slowly migrating from owning and managing original copies of software and data, to merely using or renting a service that provides all the features we need. Who needs Office, when they can use Google Drive? Who wants to buy a CD, when they can listen to the band’s entire music collection on Spotify? Why use a thumb drive, if you can seamlessly share data with Dropbox? Who will bother with backups to an external hard drive, if data can be stored in the Cloud? Besides, Cloud-based software updates automatically. Moreover, the Cloud won’t break and lose your data; at least that’s the promise.

When switching to a new device today, you hardly notice the transition. All your data are already there, magically synced from the Cloud. Instead of breaking your head over old software registration keys or restoring backups, you can instantly enjoy the new hardware and learn to use novel features.

Cloud Computing   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Cloud Computing via Shutterstock

As we get used to having access to personal data anywhere and no longer fear losing precious information if our device breaks, we slowly weaken the emotional attachment to the physical devices through which we access our data. What previously worked a little like a technological Stockholm Syndrome – devices took hostage of our data and forced us to take good care of them, creating this intimate and unhealthy relationship – is now evolving into a throw-away mentality. Oh damn, my phone has a scratch. Next!

Norbert Storch, manager of a recycling company in Berlin, is extremely critical of these developments. In his view, electronic devices have turned from useful tools into toys. “Gadgets are designed for consumption with no regard to quality.” You might wonder though whether this is a conscious development steered by manufacturers or whether they are merely following the market, i.e. a changing user behavior.

“People just want to rid themselves of their trash. They have lost their sense of ownership.” This loss goes hand in hand with no longer feeling responsible for possessions. “Why do we still find TVs trashed in the forest?” Storch wonders and points out the many publicly available and free recycling systems. There will always be reckless individuals. However, if the majority of people act irresponsibly, it raises the question whether the respective systems were developed with the end user or even the whole system in mind.

Discarded Television   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Discarded Television via Shutterstock

Challenges of a Throw-Away Mentality

Fully synced Cloud-based services have made it a breeze to switch between devices, but also to let a new toy into your life. New hardware promises to be faster, offers more features, and happens to be in fashion. What’s not to like? As long as all our information and memories are easily transferred, we feel comfortable and safe. What could make a device more familiar and personal than our own data?

In a way, this is a positive development since we become more independent of physical objects. It makes life easier, more flexible, and with data being available anywhere also creates a sense of safety. On the other hand it causes a host of other issues in the short term.

  • We desire better and faster devices that can do more:
    • consumerist behavior continues its steep rise
    • electronic devices are replaced more quickly
    • devices are retired before they break
    • turnover rates force manufacturers to focus on fast and cheap production
    • quality is no longer a priority
  • Electronics aren’t produced from thin air:
    • resource extraction takes its toll on the environment
    • natural resources are being depleted
  • Discarded devices are eventually trashed:
    • old consumer electronics amount to mountains of waste every year
    • electronics generally contain poisonous materials that could leak into the environment
    • electronics also contain a lot of rare and precious metals that are more economic to recapture than to extract from their extremely limited virgin sources
    • electronic waste is difficult to recycle

Let me give you a taste of what the consequences of our behavior are.

End of Life – Yesterday’s Treasure is Tomorrow’s Trash

Gadgets die, become obsolete, or simply outdated. Worldwide, an estimated 50 million metric tons of electronic waste are generated every year. The US alone contributes over 3 million tons and Europe, with more than two times the population of the US, chips in up to 7 million tons. The trend for these numbers points up steeply. In Europe, an additional 3-5% of electronic waste is generated every year and countries in South America, Asia, and Africa are rapidly catching up.

The Digital Dump   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

The Digital Dump Infographic via GOOD

Mobile phones have the highest turnover rate among consumer electronic devices, with the average user obtaining a new phone approximately every 18 months. If not given to someone else, the discarded phones often land in a drawer until they are eventually tossed out and go to the landfill. This is a huge loss to the economy as 100,000 cell phones contain approximately 2.4 kilograms of gold, more than 900 kilograms of copper, and 25 kilograms of silver, among other valuable materials. This amounts to over a quarter million US Dollars worth of metals.

Scarcity of Resources

Finite resources are only half the problem, but at this point they are at the center of all our problems. Electronics in particular are made up of a host of rare and precious materials. A mobile phone for example contains up to 60 different elements and is made up of roughly 40 percent metals, 40 percent plastics, and 20 percent ceramics and trace materials. A cell phone’s circuit board contains aluminum, beryllium, copper, gold, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc. All of these materials are more or less difficult to mine, some are hazardous, and most are valuable.

Indium, for example, is used to create transparent electrodes in LCDs and touch screens. It is extracted as a side product mainly during zinc production. Between 2002 and today its price has risen from US$94 per kg to almost US$1,000 per kg. Indium supplies are dwindling away rapidly. Based on current rates of extraction, resources will last for about 20 years. In 2010, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that the recycling rate for Indium was only around 1%. Imagine a smartphone without a touch screen or a laptop without a flat screen.

All high-tech gadgets depend on rare metals. And although a set of 17 key elements of the modern electronics industry are called rare earth metals, almost all of them are found in abundance. However, they are rarely found in concentrated ores and are thus difficult to extract. This limits the speed at which they can be extracted. Subsequently, the growing demand is predicted to exceed the limited supply in a few years from now.

Supply shortages and reduced exports from China are pushing up the prices, not even taking into account the long-term environmental costs caused by mining. The extraction of rare earth metals for example creates radioactive slurry tailings and the refining process depends on the addition of toxic acids. This hazardous waste poses not only an environmental, but also a significant health risk for workers and the community. Unfortunately, the past has proven Murphy’s Law to be highly accurate: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

While China is the main supplier of rare earth elements, 13 million metric tons of this natural resource can be found in the US. Meanwhile, China is addressing the serious environmental consequences and is closing illegal mines. To serve the increasing demand, new sources are being developed worldwide. Even sites of production that were abandoned years ago are re-opened. The Mountain Pass Mine in California for example closed its gates in 2002 but resumed its operations in August 2012. Mining in the US has become profitable again.

Open Pit Mine   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Open Pit Mine via Shutterstock

Toxic Waste

With the source materials and how they are produced in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that end products such as electronic devices themselves contain highly hazardous substances. Plastic casings for example are treated with chemicals that prevent the material from catching fire (i.e. brominated flame retardants). Many more substances contained in electronic devices are known to be persistent and toxic. Moreover, many accumulate in organisms, including humans, leading to serious health issues. This includes lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, phthalates, and hexavalent chromium. All of them are released over time and pose a significant threat to the environment and human health in particular.

Waste is a concept only known to humans. And we yet have to find ways to deal with waste responsibly. Until a few years ago, developed countries routinely exported electronic trash to countries in Asia and Africa. These countries still lack proper waste treatment and recycling plants; the waste goes to landfills and slowly pollutes the local environment. Moreover, children and adults scout the mountains of trash for valuables, such as scrap metal, which they can sell for a meager income. To extract the last bits of precious materials, plastics and other materials are burned off, releasing toxic fumes and poisoning the air, water, soil, and thus the entire community.

Child at Landfill   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Dmitry Berkut / Shutterstock.com

An international treaty known as the Basel Convention attempted to prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. Later, regional laws were passed, including the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive in Europe or the Recycling Standard R2 in the US, which force manufacturers to ensure the collection and recycling of their products. As a result, recycling rates have slowly been increasing. However, recycling is still lagging behind and meanwhile electronic waste is still sent to Asia and Africa. European exports are falsely labeled as second hand and since the US never ratified the Basel Convention, their exports of electronic waste are in fact legal.

Regulations and laws are powerful tools to direct change and development. However, they often lag behind or fail to address the full scope of reality. Developing countries are rapidly adopting the Western lifestyle. Within this decade they will produce more electronic waste than their role models and twice as much by 2025. Policy makers need to act quickly to direct both product design and recycling practices in the right direction.

Recycling of Electronic Waste As a Business

Given the scarcity of resources and the legal implications, recycling of electronic waste has the potential to be a profitable business. Improving access and availability of rare materials through recycling is potentially easier than exploiting virgin resources. Moreover, harmful substances can be kept in a closed loop, thus preventing them from leaking into the environment.

I gain my first insights into recycling at a recycling plant in southern Sweden. It’s a bleak November afternoon as we arrive at the plant. Following a friendly welcome, we are guided into the workshop. We pass dozens of large containers, filled with any type of consumer electronic you can imagine. They originate from households in the region. We observe workers with face masks who take apart computers and TVs. At one of the stops we see a pile of old hard drives next to desktop computers waiting to be disassembled. Conveyor belts transport separated parts to the outside, where they land on mountains of trash or in containers, lined up to be transported to another plant for further processing.

After a few stops, we gather around some smaller containers, filled with discarded mobile phones. We are allowed to rummage through the piles and inspect the devices. Many look perfectly fine, hardly used, and without visible damage. The most common fault seems to be a smashed screen and with some of the more expensive models you can only imagine the owner’s frustration.

Our guide takes an old fashioned folding phone and breaks it apart. We are shocked. Laughingly he encourages us to find one and try it. “It’s stress relief” he says. I can barely bring myself to do it.

Trashed Phones   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Trashed Phones via Shutterstock

Recycling is a very complicated and crude process. Since electronic devices are made up of dozens of different materials, all with unique chemical properties and environmental or health hazards, it is almost impossible to recycle them without first disassembling them into their components and separate fractions of more or less known materials.

To get a better understanding of what the challenges are, I visit another recycling company in Berlin, Germany. The website reveals they draw inspiration from Agenda 21, the United Nation’s action plan for sustainable development. The original idea was to match refurbished electronics with users who are satisfied with the performance those devices offer. The business assumption was that costs for disposal would drop since devices would yield a profit when sold to a consumer. From the start, however, the company was also concerned with actually recycling electronic waste and developing technologies to do so. This earned them the 1st European Recycling Award in 1995.

I meet with Dr. Hendrik Böhme, founder of the company. Today they recycle electronic waste from industrial sources, predominantly computing devices and office technology, but also medical technology.

Dr. Hendrik Boehme   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Dr. Hendrik Böhme, Electronic Waste as Carrier of Values and Resources, TU Berlin, 1999

When I ask Dr. Böhme about the business with used electronics, he states it is no longer of interest. He says most of his previous customers can no longer afford refurbished devices. However, I suspect the decline in prices has also contributed to a decline in value of used electronics. Later he explains about the risk associated with dealing in second-hand goods. The company has to extend warranty, but particularly with computers many parts are fragile, prone to damage, and you don’t know how they were treated by previous owners. Warranty-related expenditures quickly exceed the value of the devices, rendering the business unprofitable. One viable alternative Dr. Böhme offers in order to utilize the full lifetime of used electronics is to donate them, for example to schools in developing countries.

I want to learn more about the recycling process. Dr. Böhme explains that recycling requires separation of material fractions, to avoid mixtures that later cannot be separated. This involves a lot of manual labor. Manpower is expensive and many companies work with handicapped people. The advantage is that nearly the entire material of a device is fed into the recycling loop and almost nothing is discarded. The material fractions are handed off to other companies that further separate the fractions and recapture materials in specialized plants.

Manufacturers consciously undermine the ability to service and retrofit devices. Many devices are deliberately constructed to break after a few years. In the process of recycling, one often notices this when for an entire series, one knows exactly what needs to be done, to bring this device back to life.” – Dr. Hendrik Böhme

As an example Dr. Böhme offers a computer terminal they have been repairing. The power button sits at the tip of a thinly elongated conductor board. Every time the button is pressed, the board bends slightly. After around three years of regular use, the button breaks off. Whenever the company received this terminal, this was the only fault, rendering the machine useless for the end user. Dr. Böhme speculates that a simple plastic strip could have stiffened the conductor board, stabilized the button, and prevented the damage. Moreover, the manufacturer used screws with flat heads to prevent opening of the device.

They don’t want devices to be repaired. When faulty, then discard and buy new. It gets ever worse.” I ask whether he can foresee a change in the future. He negates. “There was an euphoria in the 90s to think with recycling in mind. But somehow they passed the buck to the recycling industry, saying ‘figure out how to recapture the stuff’.” – Dr. Hendrik Böhme

He takes a partly disassembled tablet from one of the piles and points to the screen. He complains about the glues that make it almost impossible to strip the piece down and process it for recycling. He also objects to the mix of black and white plastics, that can’t even be seen when the device is fully assembled. The result of this design is that recycling becomes more energy intensive and expensive.

Broken Tablet   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Broken Tablet via Shutterstock

Presently, manufacturers are slow to use recycled materials in their products. While quality, purity, and thus reliability of these materials may be one issue, price still is a deciding factor. Despite increased demand and a steep rise in prices for natural resources, the mining and production of copper, for example, remains cheaper than the recycling alternative.

Dr. Böhme says recycling could be a lot cheaper, if manufacturers designed their product with recycling in mind. He bemoans that the WEEE Directive’s take-back-system didn’t encourage manufacturers to work more economic and ecologic. He says the regulations failed because manufacturers are not forced to address the end-of-life of their products. Instead the recycling industry gets funded to clear mountains of trash, which is the most economic approach for manufacturers.

Recycling of mass-produced consumer electronic devices is a relatively new field. Recyclers are faced with a multitude of materials. On the one hand, the challenge is to develop processes for extracting raw materials from an unknown and complex mixture. In many countries this is complicated by complex regulations and laws. On the other hand, they are working with components whose effects on humans and the environment are not well understood. Recycling companies carry a huge responsibility which should lie with the manufacturers.

Dr. Böhme wishes policy makers would influence manufacturers to accept their responsibility. However, he remains pessimistic. From his perspective, economic concerns continue to trump social and ecological consequences. He states that companies and countries go to any length to obtain cheap natural resources, be it the exploitation of poorer countries or war. In this light it seems like a blessing that resources are declining and recycling becomes profitable.

Conclusions

The Future of Recycling

The rapid turnover of electronics and the expansion of markets in developing countries lead to ever more waste and growing demands for resources. Thus prices for raw materials will continue their steep rise. Consequently, the recycling of electronic waste will gain importance as it becomes increasingly profitable. And it will be indispensable once natural resources have been depleted or their exploitation becomes economically less viable than recycling.

Ecologically, it’s a nightmare that we are not yet able to feed our increasing hunger for resources by means other than mining. The damages we are causing to the environment and human society are huge and largely irreversible for many generations to come.

Economically, we are in the semi-comfortable situation that the recycling industry is maturing during a time when we don’t yet depend on it as a resource. Unless our consumption habits change, however, the industry will proceed not only to recycle everyday waste, but will also recycle waste from over 200 years of industrialization. The landfills of today are the mines of the future.

Urban Mining   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]

Urban Mining Infographic via Mining.com

Urban mining may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. This industry is driven by massive shortages in natural resources. Landfills in Japan, for example, contain more than double the gold, silver, indium, and platinum the entire world consumes per year. Moreover, many countries are running out of landfill space. At current rates, the UK will have to look for alternatives by 2018. Meanwhile, the first landfill mine is being established in Belgium by 2014. Mother Nature forces us to deal with our trash, one way and the other.

The Future of Consumption

There are many signs that our behavior is changing. The Internet has helped the sharing mentality to go mainstream and turn into what is now called The Sharing Economy. Services like Napster or Kazaa made peer-to-peer file sharing famous. Although this kind of sharing violates copyrights, the industry eventually caught on and provided their customers with many other ways of sharing online, not least via social networks.

As mentioned earlier, the desire to own original copies of music or software is declining . With services like Spotify we are trading the luxury of buying music for the comfort of having any music we like available to us anytime. As we learn that it is not necessary to own a particular item, we are progressively losing our attachment to physical objects.

These changes do cause many issues in the short term, but they also offer hope. We are transitioning through a phase of rapid technological evolution. Today, we are producing technological devices that are infinitely more powerful and produced with only a fraction of the material, compared to comparable devices from a few years ago. A smartphone for example unites what used to take three or more devices: telephone, camera, text messaging, Internet browsing, watching TV, and more. This progress of packing more functions into ever more compact gadgets continues. The hope is that in the future we will be able to produce more devices and serve the growing market with much less resources.

Technology 1980 vs. 2010   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: TopCultured

Doing more with less alone won’t solve our problems. As discussed previously, our consumption habits are shifting from owning towards using. We do desire to have the latest of every device and service, but we are no longer focused on calling it our own. We rent apartments, lease cars, pay for mobile contracts that offer a new phone every two years, and buy monthly music subscriptions. These examples are only the beginning. A trend is manifesting: we are slowly letting go of physical status symbols.

Instead of defining who we are by what we own, we are transitioning to other types of status. We are beginning to define ourselves by how we interact (social networks), what we know (self education), and what we can do (entrepreneurship). We are in the middle of the social-technological revolution. This, however, is a story of its own.

The drivers behind this phenomenon are service design and product service systems (PSS). The primary aim when designing a new product is to meet the user’s needs, as opposed to stimulating new needs and consumption with the aim to make profit (e.g. soft drinks). In addition, companies design flexible services that revolve around this product. Xerox was one of the first companies to succeed with this model. Instead of selling copy machines, they started selling the copies, meaning they provided the devices and charged users for the service of using them. Likewise, many car companies no longer just manufacture automobiles, but also develop car sharing systems. The user’s advantage with these service systems is that they are guaranteed a fully functional device. The company on the other hand is responsible for keeping it up to date and running. Subsequently, companies will also be responsible for recycling products or parts at their end-of-life, naturally encouraging them to make this as efficient as possible.

The Future of Waste

Right now, we are learning to make the most of resources, including our waste. The goal is to not let anything be thought of as waste, but to re-use and recycle everything, just like it’s done in nature. Many companies have started to mimic nature in their product design. One approach to guide these designs is called ‘Cradle to Cradle’.

[Cradle to Cradle] models human industry on nature’s processes viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining a safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and technical nutrients. Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste free. – Wikipedia, 2012

In a Forbes interview the co-founder of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach said:

“We see all materials as nutrients and eliminate the concept of waste. We’re saying, “Don’t even think about waste; waste doesn’t exist.” How can we make everything a beneficial nutrient to either biology or technology?” – William McDonough

In other words, waste will be recognized as a resource, meaning the concept of waste has no future.

Our Future

Our future hasn’t yet been decided; we are creating it every day. Nobody has figured this world out; neither nature nor humans are predictable and hence they are uncontrollable. In a sense, we are blindfolded and oblivious to the consequences of our actions. And like Karl, I believe that deep inside, everyone just wants to live a better life and contribute to a better world. In other words, not a single person is to blame for the mess we’re in.

I’m optimistic that everyone is trying to create a better tomorrow, maybe without full understanding of how. We have to create tomorrow without jeopardizing the day after tomorrow.” – Karl, Industrial Designer

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t a value in exposing the wrong-doings of individuals or organizations. After all, where would we be today without the tireless efforts from organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, or Amnesty International? Think of their methods what you want, but you will have to agree with me in one point: They have done groundbreaking work with putting deep social and environmental issues into the center of public attention. Broad public awareness is a key to building sufficient leverage, lay pressure on decision makers, and move something.

Greenpeace Baby in Oil Ad   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Greenpeace International

However, while creating awareness is extremely important in creating a better world, I believe we also have to approach issues with empathy. Instead of simply pointing a finger, creating frustration, and shifting the responsibility onto someone else, we need to contribute to the solution; all of us.

Companies depend on us as customers. When we vote with our Dollars, they are forced to listen. So try to make conscious decisions when you consume. Buy local, spend money on quality, get informed and support companies that are socially and ecologically aware and produce accordingly, recycle your waste, and most of all, raise tough questions. Not only will it help you to reflect and learn, it will force others to think, and it might just inspire them to re-think their behavior.

Buckminster Fuller, an American architect and systems theorist of the 20th century, liked to call this planet Spaceship Earth. You could also call it an over-sized Noah’s Ark; a big boat floating in the universe, and we’re all in it together. What happens in another part of the world affects all of us, the bad and the good. Let’s focus on the good and steer the ship into calmer waters. What are your optimistic and hopeful visions for the future?

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” – John Lennon

Planet Earth Sunrise   Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature]
Image credits: Planet Earth Sunrise via Shutterstock

Epilogue

My own broken laptop will not be replaced, yet. I have completed this article on it. First, I attached the body to an external monitor, eventually removed the broken display, and meanwhile ordered a replacement LCD and repaired the laptop myself. Fortunately, the manufacturer has decided to use screws and plastic clips, rather than glue for the bezel. The design of the device makes it very easy to replace broken hardware and the replacement LCD was affordable. Thank you Sony!

* name changed
Image credits: Green Earth Recycle via Shutterstock

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118 Comments -

Alberto Lerma

Isn’t “Jane” the same lady from Yaara’s story?

I really get attached with my devices and whenever I get a new one I find a new purpose for the “old” one (e.g. old main laptop – new school laptop), if it breaks I always ask Google if I can repair it myself, if I can’t I take it to my technician and the repair it’s usually cheap around here. Why? because there’s a lot of people that do what you say, so even if the company doesn’t have spare parts my repairman does because THAT’S his business.

I don’t usually read what you write but this article was great and I loved it!!

Tina Sieber

My Jane is not the same person as Yaara’s Jane. Coincidence that I picked this name. But it is the same age category. :)

Great to hear that you are getting so much use out of your devices! And thanks so much for the feedback. :)

Ryan Dube

You really should read more of what Tina writes – you’ll be pleasantly surprised more often.

Charlie O.

OhMyGosh! I almost don’t know where to begin. This is a great article! It is comprehensive and thoughtful. I consider it, at the very least, an updated addendum to the material available at http://www.storyofstuff.org/ , which anyone interested in this issue should visit.

My focus on this site, aside from the wonderfully passive-aggressive, gadget oriented family that it includes me in, has been writing and the potential for a site more recognized and reputable by improving the writing. I’m just a member, so take it with a grain of salt.

There are several times during the article where it seems you want to wrap it up, but you don’t. Your use of real world examples clashes against your technical descriptions and, in those, you are struggling to dumb it down to the average user. We’re not scientists (like you) and we know it, that’s why most of us joined MUO. Don’t be afraid to talk to us like we’re 12 – we can take it (plus, some of us are 12). Last, I would consider organizing a story telling type of article into a more linear progression. You’ve bounced from human psychology, to industrial design in an attempt to illustrate the life cycle of consumer electronics, then it’s revisited again when you discuss recycling, and again in your multi-point conclusion. What I’m saying is that the reader doesn’t know whether he/she is being told an educational story, or if the same points are being revisited in the increasing/decreasing detail of an academic or technical paper.

The pics are fantastic. They challenge the reader (as you do with the article) in a way unlike the average MUO topical piece. The 80’s dude vs ’10s dude is hilarious and accurate! Baby Jobs is a little weird for me, but point taken. Icky Baby probably offends the average American (me) sensibility; keep that up.

I think your predictions are close enough to allow people who may not have had a clue about this to get informed – maybe you could have pointed readers towards a few corporate web sites where corps are demonstrating a more eco-communal philosophy. If the consumers are the ones who ultimately steer this whole thing, let’s give them the link they need to tie the possible solutions to the probable causes. And you can never go wrong with mentioning Green-washing.

I think you’re a good writer, but you could be a fantastic one. I’d be interested to know how you find Canada. I think it’s like a hella big Germany, only with one 60th the population density. Plus Canadians speak another language. Except for the German ones.

Tina Sieber

Thank you so much for taking the time to post such comprehensive and constructive feedback, Charlie!

In the beginning, I wanted to include The Story of Electronics from the Story of Stuff project. However, there was too much that wasn’t or didn’t feel right. They took too many shortcuts, strangled too many facts, and generally left me with a bitter taste. Yes, they made a great cartoon video for 12-year-olds, but I didn’t agree with its key message.

As you point out in your feedback, I’m not a good story teller. I know that and I really struggled with the real life examples. I felt much more at home writing the technical bits. Those parts also felt more rewarding for me personally.

Canada didn’t remind me of Germany at all; it’s much more like the US. Being back in Germany, I miss the incredible nature of BC very much. Berlin can hardly compete with that, despite being Berlin with all its awesomeness. But I love it here too and I don’t know where I’d rather be. Although I didn’t miss Berlin when I was away; I only missed the German bakeries. ;)

dragonmouth

Your article, and ones in a similar vein, are too little, too late. You and the environmentalists and the sane among us have no chance to make any kind of impression on consumers. The manufacturers have been training the consumers like Pavlovian dogs since at least the 1950’s. Apple says “New iJunk” and the faithful reach for their credit cards and checkbooks. Microsoft says “New Windows” and people are camping out for days in front of stores just to be one of the first to own. Manufacturers say “New Version/Model” and millions of people are there buying it, whether they needed or not. All they want to hear that it is NEW AND IMPROVED! Keeping up with the Joneses is so last millennium. Now people are competing to keep ahead of the Joneses.

Let’s not forget the part the tech press has played in this rush to the Latest and Greatest. As soon as a new gadget, or a new version of a gadget, is announced, the tech press pundits cannot wait to pronounce it the latest Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. They make the consumer feel like an idiot and a complete LOSER if (s)he doesn’t run out and buy it RIGHT NOW.

Just look at MUO articles and reviews. When was the last time a new product was panned or at least given a lukewarm reception? Every new gadget, every new piece of software, every new service from Google is pronounced as MUST GET. The pundits are feeding into the consumption frenzy you are decry in your article.

Charlie O.

Drag, I can always count on you to touch on a spot I overlook, and it’s usually a sore-spot. I’ve often had conversations/arguments about the definitions of conspiracy vs conspiratorial – at least in the way I use them.

I agree that the press, the corps and even the g’vment all have an uncomfortably ‘linked’, lets say, relationship, but really – I think it’s more a matter of one force controlled by the masses acting against (or with) another. The problem is that people don’t realize how much power they really have, but more than that, they don’t care to know how the individual pieces of the puzzle interact. If public ed in the USA taught (and actually held kids accountable for the info on) how our gov worked, I believe people would have stopped voting for the Prez as a fix to the economy somewhere around Carter or Reagan.

Yeah, we’re purchasing sheeple, but it’s not too late. I’m teaching my kids to use cloud and none of them own a device at all. My oldest is building his own bird aviary with $ that he earned/saved, and the others are following suit. And no, we don’t live in no(here)where. But my greatest hope is watching other kids interact with mine. No matter what else they may think, no one puts them down, and many are interested in how my kids do what they do. Every time I hear gadget envy, we have a talk. Every time I smell ‘cool’, we have a talk. Yes, Tina is late, but it’s our world/time. Maybe she’s not a Joe Jackson fan, but she’s not wrong.

I’m liking you just ’cause you always call me out.

fridges

Using “the Cloud” only moves parts of the hardware from one location to another, where are the savings?

Charlie O.

Well… since I can’t afford a cluster server (or the amount of hardware that would comprise a grid or cloud [in the hardware sense, not the service sense]) and since the companies who both can afford it and are interested in selling me services, instead of physical products, will provide me with service access for either a fee, or advertising or both, the issue becomes somewhat academic at that point. Wikipedia uses watts/hour as a comparator, but it’s difficult to come up with a DIRECT comparison with so many variables, ie: typical consumer usage or individual consumer usage vs. MegaCorp usage vs HomeGrown – CoOped – TimeShared small guy usage. The footprints can only be calculated in either a momentary snapshot or with extensive collected data.

So, what did i just say? It sounds like corps may be just as wasteful as us. Not really. One thing that cloud-users who are looking to contribute to an OVERALL lower ecological footprint have in their favor is, actually, corporate greed. Corporations are reticent to purchase new equipment once they have a system up and running. An extreme example of this is Vegas Casinos, and in fact, many companies are figuring in longevity to avoid problems like data migration and state/fed regs surpassing their plans to ‘dump’ equipment after loss of usefulness. The crappy economy is forcing some companies to lease processing time and even share in the creation of globally disbursed cloud sites (physical), like the one in Iceland that gets cooled off most months by their crappy, cold weather.

Its also true that the financial cost to operate the equipment is certainly more per user than our personal equipment, especially since we can shut down when we want and they can’t. But that’s a financial issue that they can make up by basically being good at business, not to mention that global, 24 hr. access means more users/minute which mitigates much of that cost. But the bottom line, especially as it applies to Tina’s article, is that always on, faster super machines that are designed to run more efficiently being always on than turned on by demand, are less likely to end up in a landfill and if so, certainly not at the rate that personal equipment does (or might in the hands of the irresponsible). If we were to look at the total ecological footprint, keeping in mind the sourcing, the power consumption, the community building potential and the end life (many more industrial machines are finding second lives in third world industry and schools all over), cloud computing is going to be the clear winner.

Did I answer your question?

Tina Sieber

Fantastic answer. Thank you Charlie!

Tina Sieber

I hear you! Please hear me, too.

Consumerism is an incredibly young discipline. As Charlie writes, it’s all about education and realizing how much power and influence we as individuals have. Yes, there are too many people who have no clue what they are doing or why they are doing it or what damage their behavior is causing. But they are not evil and neither are the companies who sell them the stuff they want.

People want to do the right thing, even companies, they just don’t know how. We have to help them. Either as role models educating our peers or as consumers supporting the good companies or as employees making the right choices. Each and every one of us can make a small change. It won’t hurt or have a big impact, but it adds up.

I’m trying to approach those issues with empathy rather than prejudice, judgement, or disgust. It’s tough and I struggle, but it’s worth it! Trying to see things from different perspectives is very revealing and sometimes you even discover a solution.

Along the way, I cannot help but see all the good examples of people and companies that are really trying to make a difference. I can see how things are changing for the better. And I resist to engage with people who are not willing to see what I see because I don’t want to lose sight of the good.

It doesn’t mean I’m delusional. I see all the misery that’s left, all the forces working against humanity. But I also see the opportunities we have. Dismissing them means giving up and accepting defeat. That’s not an option, is it?

In other words, only a positive outlook and hard work to make it come true will save us; not necessarily our individual selves (we all have to die), but our kind.

dragonmouth

“Consumerism is an incredibly young discipline.”

I find two seemingly contradictory definitions of the word in the dictionary:
1. protection of the interests of consumers
2. advocacy of a high rate of consumption and spending as a basis for a sound economy

I assume you mean #1.

Tina Sieber

Actually both could be applied. I meant the second, as in “more consumption to stimulate the economy”, which currently is a problem.

LaSuperchica

Ms. Sieber,

Where to begin? Let’s try a few words, ALEC, Fukushima, climate change, Multi-National Corporations, NAFTA, Citizens United v. FEC,

We now face out of control fundraising by unaccountable Super PACs, and dirty attack ads funded by shadowy corporate front groups and a total combined spending on the last Presidential and Congressional elections estimated to reach as much as 6 or 7 billion dollars.

You want your “Cloud?” Sounds so benign, so poofy, but it’s not actually a cloud, it’s a series of huge banks of physical computers, all requiring replacement, electricity and natural resources. Like electric cars or solar panels, this technology simply moves the environmental costs away from the user: out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, it’s not out of this world. Every thing you see around you represents a hole in the ground somewhere else.

No one wants to hear it, but I’m not the only one who thinks that we, as the the greatest per capita consumers in the world, have a particularly serious responsibility to act wisely and question our abuse of incredible privilege. We must become engaged citizens willing to contest corporations who today have more rights than human beings (do you have millions of dollars to fund lobbyists and candidates?) and enlightened users of the limited resources of this planet. IOW, time to give up some toys and give something back.

Kirby

Recycling electronics as a busines….. Hmmmm. If only I had the money to build my own recycling plant, it would be a big help to my country and the environment.

Tina Sieber

Start small. :) You don’t need to build a plant yourself. Maybe you can convince someone else how valuable those resources are and how important recycling is becoming.

Kirby

“Start small” … I could salvage those golden pin heads from motherboards and sell them. I still don’t have prospective buyers though.

Brandon Lockaby

It will take a whole lot of those pins to turn a profit. By a whole lot I mean hundreds of pounds to make a good sell.

Kirby

Yep. But you gotta start somewhere right?
And I don’t have any better use for the motherboard anyway.

Bala Murugan.R vicky

Tina Sieber… i would certainly remember this name. And i should say this is one hell of an article. this put me a hundreds of questions in my mind.. seriously. every one needs to act now…

Tina Sieber

Please share some of your questions with us!

James Bruce

Fantastic article Tina, though I kind of find myself agreeing with Dragonmouth (I know, right?!) about it really all being too little, too late. We are in fact, part of the problem.

Nevermind electronic waste though, the vast majority of the population can’t even be bothered to separate their trash and have no idea that most plastics can be recycled – and the UK government does virtually nothing to enforce recycling (or discouraging trashing). The most controversial decision to cut back our trash pickups to just once every two weeks was throw out by my local council after a huge backlash – now we’re back to trash every week, recycling once every two weeks.

If it were up to me, we would go the route that Kyoto did; introducing translucent trash bags that cost a bomb and are mandatory, while recycling bags are cheap and subsidized. Each trash bag cost about $1 and you had to use the official city ones; and because they were translucent, the trash men would simply refuse to take it if it contained recyclables, and put a little sticker on the bag explaining why. And if you put regular trash into your recycling (bottles and cans in a separate bag to plastics), they would also refuse that, not to mention the public shaming of having the neighbourhood chief come round to give you a telling off (no joke, this happened to me once after I mistakenly put a large metal object in with the recycling, not understanding this was a separate pickup once a month).

My point is, people won’t change without enough legislation and laws that we’re called dictatorships – while they are free to continue consuming at ever increasing rates, never recycling a damn thing and driving their fat stupid cars – they will not change.

I also got the impression you think renting is better than owning a house, but I’d have to humbly disagree there. Owning my house, and being able to transform it from a pokey little garden to a productive urban farm that uses every ounce of space (I’ve started on the front garden now too, had enough of ornamental bullshit) has had a dramatic impact on my life. And you can’t keep chickens in rented places! If I’m honest, my reasons for being somewhat self-reliant are because I know the world is not going to stop it’s filthy course, and it’s all going to come crashing down at some point in the very near future. If I can acquire the skills and tools needed to survive without any external inputs, I may stand a chance.

Tina Sieber

Renting isn’t always better than owning. Certainly not with housing if you can settle down permanently and do all the amazing things you are doing with your house! Owning land, taking care of it, and transforming it to become somewhat independent is the absolute best thing an individual can do!

What I mean is that we don’t need to own everything. Many of us own a bunch of tools we only ever used once or a printer or a car that are idle most of the time. Not everyone will want to rent or share everything (cars are an especially touchy topic), but there certainly is a huge opportunity to save resources and money by sharing or renting services rather than buying stuff.

Ignoring the fact that the top down dictatorship approach is completely unethical, I have to admit that it works, at least for as long as you can keep up the pressure and control resistance. In the long term dictatorship has proven to fail because it breeds too many negative feelings. People want to be free and respected.

What is much more effective and has longer lasting results is if you can
inspire people to re-think and help them change their behavior, i.e.
– help them understand and remember why something is so important and
– make it easy for them to make the right choices (e.g. recycle).

Granted, that’s very, very, very tough.

The Kyoto system for example could be awesome if people would not only get shamed for mistakes, but more importantly rewarded for doing everything right! Imagine a neighborhood chief who not only empathizes and patiently explains why you need to recycle and how it is done right, but who also comes around and lets you know that you are doing well. Systems are great, but we’re all human, right? We despise being put down and we crave encouragement and recognition.

Charlie O.

Have to be the devil’s advocate here:: “Owning land, taking care of it, and transforming it to become somewhat independent is the absolute best thing an individual can do!”

So on an extremely nit-pickey bent, now you’re advising for actions that purist-environmentalists may consider invasive. Think ‘paleo’ vs. vegetarian. Yes, I’m expanding in a different direction, but it’s at the heart of the real issue. The problem is: Drag is right, and SuperChick is right and you’re right. When I worked in pest management, we were (and that industry still is) constantly trying to balance long term environmental impact versus acute effect (poisoning the right organism fast) versus selling people stuff (service AND material) versus governmental compliance – all while trying to explain to Mrs. Whatsis that “Well, no mam’me, you can’t kill all the ants, but not the ‘healthy’ bugs, and no, we don’t relocate mice and rats for reintroduction to the environment.”

That’s because there is NO way to do what we want with nature without affecting nature… and everything you have comes from nature. There is no real way to “go back to the way things were” because that all depends on which layer of “were” you are talking about. Did you want to just take away women and black’s right to vote, or did you want to live in a grass and dung hut and REALLY give your appendix a workout? The Star Trek universe doesn’t exist and until we can actually exchange energy and matter freely, EVERYTHING is COST. Only taking that into account will even begin to steer us back towards anything that even resembles a balance between nature and man. And the “best” part is, there are many, many factors that are just completely out of our control. Here’s an example of what I mean:

You live in a tribe. You master everything you see. You breed, you expand, all your needs are met. One century, you realize that the local water hole can only really support so many people and animals. So you and the elders talk it over and conclude that standing on the tallest peak around will enable you to look out and gain perspective. You spy a reflective, oblong disturbance in the landscape, far away close to the horizon. After much philosophical and scientific observation, discussion and conclusion-ing, you decide that it is most likely another watering hole. Since it is not feasible to travel each way for the water for consumption and since you can’t drive the animals there for water and consume what’s here for yourself, you determine, correctly, that the only way to maintain “balance” is to branch your tribe and recreate what you have here, over there. So in a stunning, historical and ground breaking event, a portion of the tribe, chosen to be the most likely to succeed in populating, hunting and gathering, tearfully sets off to colonize the other watering hole. Years of preparation, months of reorganizing political flexibility for the fledgling, independent, new tribe and weeks of travel afoot and the second the pilgrims (colonists, whatever) come over the last hill what do they see? They see a man with a bucket. And that man drops his bucket and quickly runs over the next hill where smoke from the fires of THAT tribe, previously unknown to exist, are permanently located after surviving the colonization of the water hole they occupy now that became too small to support THEIR colony.

That was it. Did you miss it? That was the beginning of the end. There is no surviving this for nature. None. It will either be war or trading. Separation of culture or combining of it. Either way, nature will be consumed by it. Even a unilateral agreement to repopulate at a politically agreeable rate will only postpone the inevitable. (It’s a bio-mathematical fact. Non growth + environmental change = extinction.) Its now suicide and trust your competition to be more responsible than you were going to be, or take the reigns yourself. This is cold. This sucks. Nothing in the physical universe can change it because it simply is how things are.

I believe there is an answer to this but it’s so unpopular as to invite hate and reprisal that I’m just, honestly, not man enough to take. Wanna guess what it is?

James Bruce

I think I’m on the level with you here: I’d call it “population balancing”, and I’m not afraid to speak out in favour of it.

As far as I’m concerned, child birth is not a human right, it’s a luxury. If you can’t afford a child, you shouldn’t have one, period. Society has no responsibility to fund the irresponsibie.

Practically, I’d start implementing it by neutering all the criminals and long term benefit claimants – that should improve society no end. I believe they actually trialled this in an American city in the 70s, and 30 years later the crime level had plummeted. Sadly, it was deemed illegal and reparations had to be paid, but it worked.

Charlie O.

Nope. Sorry, Bruce. That is incorrect.

First, I said that population control will not work. Religious or moral grounds aside, the bottom line is that forced, legislated, snuck (sneeked?) or culturally engineered to be desirable – birth control moves resources away from the places that generate stability and, post production, they end up in the environment in a way that causes more problems than we solve with population control.

Not to mention that realistically, birth control as it exists now (and in my opinion, as it always will) is a farce. Regardless of the statistics, there’s always a variance for failure. Now hold on to that thought. Every environmentalist or environmentally aligned scientist or professional will tell you that diversity is key to species continuance. Variation in birth control actually leads to a higher failure rate, but a method with a high (lets argue, the highest) success rate is more likely to be accepted and will ultimately be the most widely used. Now lets get back to the variance thing. Applying a known genetic selector (birth control that doesn’t work on specific genotypes, or worse, works exceptionally well on a majority) to a population, any population outside of a lab, is inherently dangerous. And the potential outcomes are always tabulated post mortem. Obviously I should exclude abstinence and forced sterilization, but keep in mind that forced sterilization causes political problems that come back on you (not YOU, Bruce – the powers that be.) in a way that’s not’s sustainable to your particular governmental regime.

Look up hormonal birth control in the Chesapeake Bay. We’re making new solutions faster than we can possibly track the data generated from brand new materials, chemicals and processes that we invented or derived over a generation ago. Every attempt to balance nature with innovation only unhinges things more. That goes for everything, not just birth control.

Sorry to get rant-y, but the solution I’m scared to mention lies at the heart of what makes us what we are, and therein lies the actual solution to environmental waist, and gadget desire and even sustainability. Yikes.

Charlie O.

Also (sorry so long) you mentioned several political sticking points about human behavior and forcing people to do stuff. I went on for so long, I feel I should also say 1. not trying to target you and 2. I agree with what you pointed out as problematic. I think your assessment of human behavior, even though some may think it pessimistic, is as good a starting point as we’d need to tackle the broader issues.

Thank you, Bruce.

Tina Sieber

And you’ll call it the Bruce Reich?
Disgusting comment if I’ve ever seen one.

James Bruce

Oh come on man, you’ve got to give us a hint!

“the solution I’m scared to mention lies at the heart of what makes us what we are”

I really hope you’re not taking this down a religious route, but I want to know anyway. You can’t leave us hangin like that…

null

Ok, you got me. I baited, and not very subtly either. But I’ll put it on the bottom as a direct reply to Tina’s article because we’re now in the skinny end of this thread.

I’ll also say – to you Bruce – its not religion or political, but it has to do with both. As I take it you’re from or in England, I have no idea of any political, religious, moral bent from you except what you’ve already said. I also know some Europeans don’t like smack talk about America the Great, and some are unimpressed, pointing out that all the really useful ideas were assimilated into the free countries that wanted them over a hundred years ago. My focus will be on the utilitarian legacy our (USA) founding fathers risked their lives for, and how it can help in exactly what Tina is calling for right now.

Cheers!

dragonmouth

“I kind of find myself agreeing with Dragonmouth”
I don’t know if my weak heart can stand it! :)

“people won’t change without enough legislation and laws that we’re called dictatorships”
Legislation and laws will not change human behavior unless you literally throw the law book at them. People won’t change without harsh and determined enforcement. You have to hit them where it really hurts, in their wallet. IF the fine for improper disposal was $1000 per item and IF it was enforced, people’s behavior would change. Getting one’s picture in the paper or on the telly would help to change attitudes also.

“my reasons for being somewhat self-reliant are because I know the world is not going to stop it’s filthy course”
To change people’s attitude you don’t appeal to their “better nature”; you have to appeal to their self-interest. My reason for recycling is that it saves (or makes) ME money. If it helps the environment, that is a happy by-product. (I refurbish discarded PCs, power tools, bicycles and furniture, and sell them at tag sales)

Lisa Santika Onggrid

You must be one of the world’s most skeptical and pessimistic person, but I can’t help but say that you do have good arguments to back up anything you say (instead of charging blindly while hiding behind the anonymity of internet). I’m agreeing with you this time.
I respect you for writing these comments. Whatever you say, it always create interesting discussions.

dragonmouth

“You must be one of the world’s most skeptical and pessimistic person”
I guess when someone sees the world through rose colored glasses, reality looks like pessimism. I try to be pragmatic and practical. When someone tells me that we can accomplish all sorts of wonderful things, I say “OK, but what is your exact plan?” The tree-huggers are big on slogans but a bit short on specifics.

“I’m agreeing with you this time.”
Just this time? I’ll better take whatever I can get. /grin/

“Whatever you say, it always create interesting discussions.”
Discussions make one think and serve to cross-pollinate ideas. The problem with ideologues is not that they are loud fanatics, but that they cut off discussion.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

That’s clever of Kyoto. It’s a good sign when government pays attention to such large-scale issue like this. Can you tell me how’s it in Japan? I heard their electronic waste count is one of the largest in the world.

James Bruce

Unfortunately, the bigger picture in Japan is not nearly as good. Two points:

1. Individual wrapping. If you buy a pack of biscuits or cakes, each one will have it’s own plastic wrap. Its disgusting, but it comes from their culture of bringing back a pack of something from holiday then giving one out to everyone at the office, putting on their desk. It’s called OMIYAGE, and everyone does it. So consequently, everything gets wrapped individually. It extends to just regular stuff in the supermarket too, not just gift items. Eugh.

2. Second hand shops are ridiculously strict. They will only accept (albeit, buy) your old goods if they’re in perfect condition. There’s no real charity shops, no freecycle, so most old stuff – perfectly useable – goes to the “oogata gomi” (big trash). On the plus side, oogata gomi costs money to dispose of, so that does dissuade some people from trashing perfectly good stuff – a typical TV would cost $20-$50 to throw away. I actually spent about a year doing a moving out service for foreigners, where we would take all their stuff, they would sometimes pay us, and we’d sell on or give away everything. “Flea markets” / carboot sales are coming back into style lately though, I believe.

Chris Hoffman

Epic article. (it’s an overused cliche, but it feels like the only word that works.)

I was going to write something about how recycling will have to be the solution, but you covered it so well.

I would say that replacing electronics isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. For example, if you’re using a Pentium 4 with a CRT monitor, your computer is likely sucking down much more energy. Upgrading to modern hardware will save a lot of electricity in the long run, and may be better for everyone involved.

Certainly we’re going to have to give up the concept of “trash.” Everything should be recyclable and designed such that it can be recycled as easily as possible. As resource prices increase, recycling will become more cost effective. I’ve often thought that future generations would go back to our landfills and mine them for resources, so it’s good to see that’s beginning to happen already.

Tina Sieber

Thanks for the feedback, Chris!

Keep in mind that electricity isn’t the problem. We can easily cover our electricity needs with various forms of renewable energy. For example we get many times the (electric) energy we consume from the sun. The problem is non-renewable resources like oil or metals.

Yes, replacing your old hardware will save some electricity and money in the long run. However, buying something new potentially causes a lot more damage in the short term: the resources needed to build it, the non-renewable energy used to produce and transport it, and the social impact along the way. Besides, if your gadget is not that old yet, replacing it will probably cost you more than it saves.

But yeah, if you are reading this and still have a Pentium 4 and a CRT that is killing you, by all means get a new one! Don’t underestimate the impact those devices have on you. Your well being is important, too! Just try to be reasonable and recycle! :)

dragonmouth

“We can easily cover our electricity needs with various forms of renewable energy.”
In theory. In practice renewable energy is still too expensive and too inefficient. It also has its own environmental problems. Wind turbines have been found to be dangerous to birds. Solar panels in numbers large enough to generate significant amounts of electricity cover so much ground that they adversely change the ecology of an area. Then there are the NIMBYs. A few years ago there was a plan to install wind turbines in the waters of Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, led by the ultra-liberal and otherwise progressive Kennedy’s, who did not want their views to be spoiled, the project was squashed.

“For example we get many times the (electric) energy we consume from the sun.”
Yes, we do. But our PV panels are still orders of magnitude too inefficient to be truly useful. To generate the gigawatts of electricity needed by large cities hundreds of acres of solar panels are needed. Unfortunately large cities do not have hundreds of acres of undeveloped land available.

“The problem is non-renewable resources like oil or metals.”
The problem with renewable energy sources is that they do not offer the same energy density as hydrocarbons do.

I noticed that you did not mention the nuclear option for generating electricity which at this point offers the easiest way to replace the capacity of fossil fuel fired generating plants.

Tina Sieber

In theory you are right.

In practice, we can use rooftops and windows to collect solar energy. In practice, huge PV panel farms have been built in the desert. In practice, a Dutch company has invented a new type of wind turbine that doesn’t have blades and hence poses no risk to birds, creates less vibration detrimental to fish, and can be placed in different locations more safely and beautifully. In practice, 25% of Denmark is now powered by wind energy. The country is aiming to be powered 100% by renewable energy by 2050, at which point they will export energy. In practice, SmartGrids are being developed to decentralize energy production and distribute energy to where it’s needed. In practice, we can even reduce overall energy consumption.

In practice, nuclear energy is not a long term alternative because we do not know were to safely store the radioactive waste (huge issue in Germany) and we cannot guarantee its safety (see Chernobyl and Fukushima). The costs and risks involved are enormous! Thus I sincerely hope that Germany will stand by its decision to back out of nuclear energy and lead the way in developing alternatives. We can cover our energy needs with renewables and right now that’s the only way forward.

In theory, we are doomed. In practice, however, we can solve any problem, if we only put enough creative energy into it.

dragonmouth

I did not say “we can’t do it”. I said that our technology has to be couple orders of magnitude more efficient to replace fossil fuel and nuclear.

I live in the suburbs of New York City, within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant which generates about 2500 megawatts.. The anti-nuke crowd is screaming for its closure because of the concerns you mention. To replace its generating capacity, it would take 1,000 wind turbines with a blade diameter of 80 meters or 2,500 turbines with 54 meter blades. Each turbine needs a certain amount of land for safety. Within 50 miles of New York there is not enough land available for even 500 turbines. As for solar panels, thousands of acres of panels would be needed. And those are the numbers to replace just ONE plant. In the NYC Metro area there at least 30-40 power plants, nuclear and fossil fueled, all generating thousands of megawatts. There is no practical way all that capacity can be replaced with wind and solar. Unless we pave over New Jersey with solar panels and put up a turbine every 100 yards or so. Of course the inhabitants of New Jersey might object but they should understand that it all to preserve the environment.

“In practice, 25% of Denmark is now powered by wind energy.”
Nice spin, Tina. While the “25%” sounds impressive , it is only 1 gigawatt of energy. The nuke down the road from me generates 2.5 GW of power and that is only 12% of what New York City uses in one year.

You and I are basically saying the same thing. We are just looking at it from different angles. Every example that you give shows that we are moving in the right direction. Every little bit helps but it is like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon. As of 2010 there was less than 200 GW of wind generating capacity in the entire world. We need at least 200 Terawatts to make even a dent in the world’s need for electricity.

James Bruce

Germany backing out of nuclear power is an insanely stupid reaction to badly reported media coverage – just like the idiot foreigners who left Tokyo after the fukushima daiichi incident. The actual damages from radiation are overestimated, and people panic.

We cannot cover our current energy usage with renewable technology as it is now, and while I dont disagree with working toward that in the long term – nuclear is the ONLY short term solution. And we do need short term solutions, because these politicians really don’t understand that “30% renewables by 2050″ is beyond worthless. At this rate, the world will be screwed well before then.

What about nuclear fusion? Achieve that, and we’ve pretty sorted out energy forever.

Tina Sieber

You didn’t say that we can’t do it, but you have serious doubts and you sound like you cannot imagine us ever making it. And that’s too bad.

Just looking at the numbers and at the progress technology has made over the past couple of years (let go decades) and looking at what humans have achieved throughout history, I know we can do it. We “just” have to quit doubting ourselves and do it.

Another spin: Why do some countries need so much more energy than others, despite having similarly high quality lifestyles?

There is so much potential for saving energy, while at the same time getting the technology up to speed.

dragonmouth

Do I detect a little bit of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” type thinking on your part? I’m sorry if I don’t share your polyannish viewpoint of “we’ll get it done, you just have to believe.” I believe in actual numbers and currently they do not look good for you. As I keep repeating, we need to increase the efficiency by at least one or two orders of magnitude to make your hopes a reality.

“There is so much potential for saving energy”
And that is the problem, it is possible but it is not guaranteed. “Potential”, it might happen some time in the future if and when technology improves. You, Tina, are a potential billionaire IF…… you win the lottery, or IF you make some great discovery. Humanity has the potential to be a star-faring race IF somebody develops a faster than light drive. Fusion has the potential to supply all of Man’s energy needs IF it can be sustained AND controlled. Powersats in geosynchronous orbit have the potential to supply unlimited clean power IF the technology of space construction can be developed. These things are all possible, but are they going to happen?

I have no doubts that all those things will happen IF we (the human race) give up our petty political conflicts and work together. In the greater scheme of things, inter-tribal squabbles on a mud ball of a planet on the periphery of the galaxy do not amount to a bean, never mind a hill of beans.

Tina Sieber

Sitting there and throwing in that the numbers don’t look good certainly isn’t helping.

Obviously, just believing in something won’t make it happen. But it’s a pre-requisite to reaching anything! Some are leading the way, the rest of the world will eventually follow.

If humans had only ever striven to reach “realistic” goals, we would not have this conversation because we would live like Hobbits; content with the status quo and allergic to adventure. The reality is that humans by nature are hopelessly optimistic, idealistic, ambitious and some are incredibly brilliant. And that’s why naysayers will always be proven wrong.

We might not see 100% renewable energy and the end of the fossil fuel era in our lifetime (although I sure hope *I* will), but we can help make it happen.

I want human kind to prosper. What do you want?

Tina Sieber

I just came across the quarterly letter of the investor Jeremy Grantham (GMO). He manages almost $100 Billion, i.e. the kind of guy whose attention you wanna have, and renewable energy has it.

He argues that renewable energy the new cheap energy, which is why the market is already swinging that way. Following the increase in investments we have been seeing, we will also continue to see massive innovation; hopefully just in time. And that’s how we will meet energy needs in the future.

The impressions the average businessman carries in his head tend to be a moving average of the last ?ve years’ information. Life is too busy to keep up with everything and usually ?ve years is recent enough. But when there is a
sudden shift in a year or two, average opinion is left sometimes far behind and that is exactly what has happened to solar energy and to a lesser extent to wind power

For once, all of the innovations, corporate start-ups, and risk taking – the best part of the capitalist system – work to
decrease our use of depleting hydrocarbons and therefore to increase our chance of stabilizing our civilization before the cliff edge is reached. Exhibit 6 shows in orange the truly remarkable decline in the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells. The only thing to compare it to is the Moore’s Law decline in the price of semiconductors. That would indeed be a happy comparison, for perceived physical limits to semiconductor progress have been overcome time and time again. If the physical limits on photovoltaic ef? ciency, and hence its price, are similarly maneuvered in future decades, then the price of photovoltaic energy would guarantee us cheap and plentiful energy forever.

The bottom line is that if we put our minds to it we can overcome normal inertia and abnormally powerful vested interests that oppose necessary change.

dragonmouth

“He manages almost $100 Billion, i.e. the kind of guy whose attention you wanna have, and renewable energy has it.¨
OK. So what?! Warren Buffet’s personal worth is about $40-50 billion and he manages $ trillions through Berkshire Hathaway. He is acclaimed as one of the savviest investors today. Yet he is not rushing to invest in solar or wind. Between February 2011 and June 2012, First Solar, one of the leading companies in the solar field, saw its stock drop in price from $175 to just $11. Buffet did not invest a single dollar in First Solar. Since June 2012 the price of the stock has risen to $45. Buffet still is not planning to invest. I would trust Buffet much sooner than I would trust Grantham.

From the article you linked to, I get the impression that Grantham is trying to justify his fund’s investment in solar stocks which have been on the rebound for the past couple of months.

“He argues that renewable energy the new cheap energy”
When you chose the proper quotes, he seems to. However, his comments on renewable energy are full of equivocations, ifs and buts. His comment “The point to remember is that ONCE THE CAPITAL IS FOUND AND THE PROJECT IS BUILT, a wind or solar farm delivers far cheaper energy than a coal-fired utility plant”. IOW, he is totally disregarding all the costs of getting the project up and running. If we follow Grantham’s methods of calculating energy costs and totally dismiss the price tag for getting a nuclear plant up and running, it can deliver energy far cheaper than a wind or solar farm.

“Exhibit 6 shows in orange the truly remarkable decline in the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells.”
While Exhibit 6 does document the remarkable decline in PV energy price, it does show that as of 2010 the PV price was still close to 4 times the price of coal-generated energy. The projections are just that, projections, not fact. Grantham admits as much.

“Following the increase in investments we have been seeing”
Most of those investments have been by various governments through subsidies for the solar industry. I don’t know if you follow the stock market but in the past year or so the solar stocks have collapsed because those subsidies are being withdrawn. This just shows that solar companies cannot really survive on merits of their product. Look up Solyndra. They received $475 BILLION from the US Government, then went belly up. Chinese companies, the cavalry Grantham speaks of, are not doing any better. Their government is also withdrawing subsidies and the companies are having trouble surviving. Speaking of the Chinese, if solar is so great, why are they building Three Gorges???

“The only thing to compare it to is the Moore’s Law decline in the price of semiconductors.”
Mr. Grantham ought to stick to fund managing. Moore’s Law is about the density of semiconductors and processing power, not the decline in price, although that could be inferred. However, Mr. Grantham should remember Moore’s Second Law or Rock’s Law which says that as the cost of computing power to the end user goes down, the capital cost of a semiconductor fab also increases exponentially. This bodes very ill for the solar industry.

dragonmouth

“if you’re using a Pentium 4 with a CRT monitor, your computer is likely sucking down much more energy. Upgrading to modern hardware will save a lot of electricity in the long run, and may be better for everyone involved.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. How about the energy needed to develop “modern hardware”? How about the energy used to recycle the P4 and the CRT and other “older” electronics? Unfortunately “modern hardware” is made more disposable (planned obsolescence) with each iteration, not more recyclable.

“Everything should be recyclable and designed such that it can be recycled as easily as possible”

That will only happen if it profits the manufacturers.

Tina Sieber

That will only happen if it profits the manufacturers.

That’s why we need a shift in consumer awareness, which will lay pressure on both politics and manufacturers. It’s already happening.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

That being said, I don’t believe manufacturers would produce easily repaired/recycled items with maximum longetivity nowadays. They want people to keep buying their products.

Tina Sieber

They would if it cost them more to take care of the stuff once it breaks, for example if customers only paid for the service.

A car manufacturer developing a car sharing system for example has a very high interest in the car running perfectly well for as long as possible and being easy to repair and upgrade when necessary.

Onaje Asheber

A time article Tina! And very truthful. The cars, you name it in this nation, computers, cell phones all made to keep you buying over and over.

Victor Ong

Just hit me: that’s what happened with my external hard drive! It’s failing and all my photos are one there :O Need to trasnsfer everything off ASAP

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Having two places to backup is more reassuring.

Catherine M

This is a must read for many of my friends – we are all in the 50+ age group and most of us reluctantly jump into new items. “Jane” seemed to be most like my friends. But not me – after all, I read all make use of articles.

Keith Swartz

Very good ‘THINK’ read! Thanks Tina & muo.com!

storm

Planned obsolescence is -somewhat- acceptable as long as companies choose poorer quality materials and their stuff breaks. I totally loathe companies that actually do program stuff to malfunction after the guarantee expires. That should be a criminal offense and the companies that do that should be fined handsomely.

Tina Sieber

I agree that actively designing stuff to break should be a criminal offense. But I hope the media backlash is keeping manufacturers from doing this at large.

I still think that the use of poor material is not acceptable. Although, as Robert pointed out, why build something of good quality, if it won’t be used for more than a few months anyways.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Yeah. I notice though, even big name brands that used to produce great products now have decline in quality. One example when the one we have broke (bought years ago) we went to buy another one. Same brand, newer model, but this one only functioned for a few months before it started giving troubles.

Igor Rizvic

True story

phogey2

WOW .Great job I sure hope a lot of people hear you. I have more electronics than rolls of tp at my home ,however I do repair & reshare them .Really great job thx

null

Interesting stuff, I wonder about if these products are included in contracts as parts of a system where, for example a supplier to the NHS may be required to guarantee parts for say 5 years post purchase, contract or the cessation of manufacture. I wonder how that is coped with?

Tina Sieber

I’m afraid I don’t really understand your question. Do you mean warranties within the supply chain?

fridges

Tina, Yes warranties are required across the complete supply chain, many parts are required to make a “whole” object and if there is a “final” warranty, there must be – to the manufacturer, some type of warranty as to the fitness and purpose of each and every part.

Tina Sieber

It’s common practice for manufacturers to source parts from various sub-contractors. I have no idea how they handle warranty cases if parts of a sub-contractor are affected. I’m sure this is regulated. But I’m still not sure why you are asking.

sijme

Interesting notion, fridges! I even went to ask some of my friends for clarification. The consumer electronics companies with which I worked did not shift the responsibility for warranty to their sub-contractors. So, if a phone is brought back and only the part of a sub-contractor failed (e.g. the screen), then the phone’s manufacturer is responsible for replacing the entire device. The sub-manufacturer can prove (from various tests) that each screen fulfilled the list of requirements before it was sent to the phone manufacturer, which they’ll use to waive responsibility. However, sometimes warranty is shifted to the sub-contractors. It simply depends on the agreement between the two.

Neither of the two options have strong implications for the sustainability aspects of the device, because in both cases the sub-contractor will aim to deliver the quality asked for by the list of requirements (i.e. not more than that). However, if the phone is designed in close cooperation with the sub-manufacturers, often more creative solutions are found. That’s because with their different backgrounds and experience, they might be able to contribute fresh new insights from which the product might benefit. In my view, designing with the supply chain can be good for sustainability aspects of consumer electronics, whereas shifting warranties doesn’t :)

sijme

Hi Null! I think I do understand your original question though. Can I be as free as to reformulate it? What happens if a replaceable part breaks, but it is excluded from the warranty (e.g. a battery from a camera)? If the camera-brand would use a ‘clever’ business model, they can design their batteries to last just a bit longer than the battery’s warranty, but shorter than the lifetime of the camera. This forces most users to buy new batteries. If the camera-brand then patents the design of the battery (so theirs are the only fitting ones on the market), they’ll sell tons of them. I’m sure this happens and it seems complex to think of a way to prevent this ‘extra income’ for the manufacturers. In the case of cameras, there are now B-brand battery models as well. However, their factories might be owned by the original camera-band just as well…

Haydar

A rare wakeup call this article is.
Thank you Tina.
I want to translate it to Arabic to help my people digest the whole picture.
Is it permitted to do so?

Tina Sieber

Absolutely Haydar!

As long as you reference the original source, you are welcome to use the article.

Robert4

This was an outstanding article! If there was a “MakeUseOf’s Greatest Hits” list, this would easily be among the best of the best. It was very interesting, thought-provoking, eye-opening…. heck, this was outright hard journalism! Extremely informative and well-written.

I wonder if manufacturers of “throwaway” tech products purposely cut quality corners because tech is so quickly outdated nowadays? Heck, why bother creating a smartphone that will last ten years when the phone will probably be obsolete next Tuesday anyway?

Tina Sieber

Yes, that’s part of the dilemma and what I’m trying to express in the article. Manufacturers follow trends and desires as much as consumers do. Both sides co-create the market. Manufacturers build the roads and consumers pick the direction.

However, if there isn’t a road, you can’t go in that direction. So the other side of the issue is that most gadgets are simply not designed to be repaired or upgraded. Look at the iPhone for example. How much has it really changed since its first release? The design could have been smarter, modular, with the ability to easily repair parts (screen, battery) or upgrade the phone (better camera, better display, better processor).

Why do manufacturers not build devices that can be upgraded or are at least built with recycling in mind? Because it’s much harder to design this way and the market neither actively demands more ‘sustainable’ design, nor does it punish ‘unsustainable’ design; at least not strong enough.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Are you kidding? Instead of being easier to repair, iProducts are getting more and more closed. It’s laughable that I can’t change basic components of my gadget by my own.

Tina Sieber

I never claimed iProducts were easy to repair. I said Apple could have been much smarter with the design from the beginning. The form factor hardly changed over the years, so in theory, the devices could have been modular. That would have been a major revolution.

Obviously, Apple didn’t go that route at all. Instead they went backwards and to this day prevent users from replacing the battery themselves. I actually couldn’t believe this was true until I found a broken iPhone one day and saw how glued in the battery really is. Horrible!

sijme

Hi! Yes, it is true that the parts of an iPhone are not modular. I’m not at all defending Apple, but I do think its worth to understand how many decisions in a design process are made.

Supporting modular design means that it must be pretty simple to change certain parts of the phone. This requires additional slots and ways to undo parts from each other, which results in a (at least somewhat) bigger phone. If another design goal is making the smallest phone on the planet, you run into two conflicting interests. Such dilemmas are in theory answered by looking at the companies’ vision and brand promises. Often these speak of customer value, sustainability, profit, etc. So, in theory, these dilemmas are solved using questions like ‘which of the two options delivers more value to the user’ and ‘which of them leads to more profit’.

In practice, short-cuts are taken, because tons and tons of such dilemmas are found in a design process. Remember that often these design teams are under heavy pressure to get the next model out as fast as possible, while each innovation brings new risks. Hence, a lot of weight is put on risk-per-option investigation and little weight is put on evaluating which is better matching to their vision and brand promises. This approach makes sense, because it significantly speeds up the design process. In my view, this approach also can also blindfold to ‘choosing the better of two evil options’ instead of choosing what’s best (a third option might be discovered).

Obviously, time pressure is no excuse to just glue the battery. When sustainability is strongly enough routed into Apple’s vision or brand promise, more ‘risky’ or innovative options will be tried for sure.

sijme

Hi Robert4! Yes, in a way I think companies do ‘purposely cut quality corners’. A product engineer usually is asked to design for a minimum life span of the product under ‘normal’ circumstances. In general, better materials and components costs more money, so the more costs they can reduce, the more profit is made. Many engineers did their job well if the device literally falls apart the day after the target life span is made. From a business perspective, they haven’t ‘wasted’ money on too expensive components in that case.

By the way, this life span is at least partly determined by users; their customer satisfaction is measured. There is a point in time where users have ‘decided’ that their product has lasted long enough. Despite their product being broken, they’re still satisfied and would buy from the same brand.

Snert

Can you provide a link with that guy in Russia so I can unlock my printer counters? That would be GREAT. I have 3 inkjet printers, stored in a closet, that quit and replacing the cartridges didn’t help. They might have died from mechanical failures, but I don’t believe so.
Links to ANYBODY who could possibly help with problems like this would be a public service. A lot of us don’t have the time or expertise to find them ourselves. Make Use Of would be a great help by posting links to resources so we user could fix things ourselves when the manufactures and repair facilities won’t.

sunshine

Hi, Tina. oh my, i know how you feel coz that’s what i feel, too! This article of yours seems like you know that i am CURRENTLY experiencing some of those feelings of “LOSTNESS” the moment my laptop of 2 yrs i-dont-know-what-on-earth-happens. though this is not the first time that i brought this to the PC doctor (thru warranty), this last time (a Monday) when I was watching movie that morning b4 i sleep it functioned well. i shut it down good and away to dreamland. Then, after 4 hours dozing, here it is, it’s not working anymore! the power button just blink everytime I turned it on! you could just imagine my panic, horror and all upon realizing that for a week while performing my 8-hour duty (personal use only, but heck!), I DON’T HAVE A LAPTOP WITH ME!!! and my day-off is FRIDAY! i have to bring it again to the service center (for the nth time) and God knows when they’ll return it back. so i finally decided to buy a new one, and will give my old one to my daughter, after of course fixing it. BUT my day-off is FRIDAY! that 4-day gap that i don’t have my laptop with me is FOREVEEEEEEEEEEEEERRR!!!

Tina Sieber

I feel your pain! I hope your new laptop is going to be of better service and your old laptop will run a little more reliably after the repair. I must say I’m very happy with my “old” laptop after repairing the display and today I’ll upgrade the RAM (finally). :)

Stephanie Staker

Tina, excellent info and points you made. I don’t know where you live but here, in our moderately-sized town, copper theft is rampant as well as catalytic converters. The copper theft is so dangerous – they steal it from electric lines for traffic signals and street lights. I have no idea where they sell it. The catalytic converter theft is brazen and amazing. My daughter-in-law parked her car in front of her office. The street is a busy one and yet, someone was able to remove the converter in less than a minute and avoided being seen. There is platinum in them as well as other precious metals. Our town has regularly scheduled “E-waste” days to take our throw-away stuff like old computers, printers, etc. What they do with it, I don’t know but I feel better knowing we didn’t just throw it in the trash for the landfill. You are absolutely right that it is better to buy new than fix the old and cheaper too. Some really good thought-provoking ideas here. Thanks.

Tina Sieber

Thank you for your comment, Stephanie.

I live in Berlin and they do the same in Germany. Super heavy man hole covers occasionally disappear (metal), so the new ones are concrete and the old ones are chained to the man hole. Ridiculous! Thieves break into yards and houses to steal wires, the railway service is occasionally interrupted due to missing wires, they even steal metal from cemeteries.

It’s usually junkyards that buy the metal; no questions asked. Here the stuff is also “exported” to eastern Europe. The problem will only get worse as prices increase.

null

Again a very good feature Tina.
And good luck with the repair of the laptop.

Tina Sieber

It’s been repaired and works very well. :)

Sebastian Redd

You wrote: “Planned obsolescence guarantees lasting consumption and a growing economy at the expense of consumers.”

This is a fairly common misconception. The problem is that when consumers spend their money on replacing broken electronics, they can’t spend that money on buying a new pair of shoes. So it is at best a zero-sum equation for the economy. I encourage you to read about the broken window fallacy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window).

Tina Sieber

I admit that I oversimplified a complex system because I didn’t want to add too many confusing variables. Thanks for bringing up the broken window fallacy. Unfortunately, it’s an oversimplification itself. Let me explain.

We don’t just replace something that breaks, but we gain a new feature or a new design. There is a hype, things are in fashion, and people want to have that new thing! This contributes to people working longer hours, several jobs (yes, also because they are badly paid), going into debt etc. And that’s what contributes to a growing economy overall.

People want to consume. And today they often consume to satisfy fundamental human needs. Subsistence, participation, affection, leisure, protection, creation, identity, understanding, freedom, even transcendence can in part be met with consumption. Obviously, consumption alone doesn’t satisfy us. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction leaves many of us with the desire to consume even more. This adds a whole different dimension to the story, doesn’t it?

We as a society have shifted our values. The economy on the other hand isn’t just shifting, it’s in fact growing. That’s a problem because we have started to (economically) depend on this growth, yet the economy cannot grow indefinitely. We have to find alternatives.

What if instead of generally having to consume more I could work less and have more time. I could devote that extra time to the things that really matter in life: loved ones, nature, sports, culture, education… The economy the way we know it today would change dramatically, it would probably shrink, but some of our really big issues would shrink, too.

Sebastian Redd

I agree! A few years ago, I made the decision to simplify my life and scale down on my work by doing ad-hoc contract work. Since then, my life has been far richer, especially in terms of relationships.

The major problem I’ve experienced with this is that most of society doesn’t operate this way, so showing up with a CV that features blank months is a problem. I’d love to do more half-day work, but companies generally don’t offer that as an option.

And yes, the broken window example falls short in the area of technology, which in a way is like the window starting to crack over time. Nevertheless, if the manufacturer in a way builds a crack into the window that breaks before you would have replaced it naturally, you lose that difference in value. I don’t know if I communicated that clearly, hope it makes sense.

Thanks for a good, thought-provoking article in any case!

Tina Sieber

Respect for changing your career approach, Sebastian! And thank you for your constructive and challenging feedback! :)

dragonmouth

” So it is at best a zero-sum equation for the economy.”

That would only be true in a closed system where the overall amount of money cannot be added to or subtracted from, analogous to conservation of matter and energy. Economy is an open system.

Shoes do not have the same price or value as electronics. Also, the consumer may decide to buy a less expensive gadget in order to be able to buy the new shoes, and vice versa. And of course there is shopping on credit which allows the consumers to postpone the actual cash outlay.

M.S.Vish

It is about time we understood why anything breaks soon after it is bought or why it’s life is limited. We in India are now thouroughly spoilt for choice and no longer have to wait months and years to be able to use newer technolgy as soon as it is launched. These days the release is simultaneous or with in a short time. Unfortunately only a small percentage have access to this privilege due to high cost and majority of the population cannot afford to replace their gadgets due to the ever increasing cost. The expectation is one of the right balance- to be able to use an equipment atleast say for 5 years or may be even more. Imagine due to the planned obsolesence the unit breaks down in 1, 2 or 3 years and it is not feasible for everyone to replace it and transfer all data and conitnue as if nothing happened. Once we are bonded yes bonded then it is hard to break it due to our dependence but not being able to replace an obsolete unit creates a lot of inconvenience and one is caught between the devil and the hard rock. Go back to analog ,labor intensive processing or wait till be able to afford a replacement.

This dilemma can be resolved if only recycling can result in a cheaper product with lot less bells and whistles but affordable by a majority of the population who cannot otherwise.

A great article and an apt topic.

Manuth Chek

IMO, Apple is the biggest promoter of this trend. They make all their products unconfigurable and tightly locked down, and release new device frequently so the fanboys can waste their money.

James Bruce

I disagree. In general, Apple products last longer and retain value. Try selling your 3 year old PC laptop on eBay. You can’t, no one wants that junk, and it’ll end up in the closet to be trashed a few years later in the next big clear up. Now try with an Apple laptop; you can get about 50% of the original price, because they’re in demand, and useful. When it does come time to recycle, do you think it’s easier to recycle a unibody aluminium Macbook, or a cheap plastic Dell?

Tina Sieber

I have sold 5+ year old Siemens-Nixdorf and HP laptops perfectly fine. Not for 50% of the original price, but still for a reasonable price (ca. 20-30%) seeing how used the keyboard and everything was.

Of course those were high end devices, not some cheap $300 laptop. You can’t compare apples with pears after all. ;)

William Smaling

Great article. I am glad that someone put so much work into explaining the pros and cons of our technolust society. I guess it all comes down to a personal choice, but I like the Cloud as backup and app platform but I would suggest personal backups too. I think the main thing people should take away from this is, you do not have to get the latest and greatest ALL THE TIME, use your devices and hardware til they really are obsolete. You will save lots of cash this way but don’t forget those backups, your personal data is more precious!

Lisa Santika Onggrid

What irks me most is if I see someone holding a powerful smartphone and they only use it for calling, texting, and social networking. They don’t even use one fourth of the device’s potential! Why not buying cheaper model with those features? One answer: pride.

Greg Skyles

Thanks, Tina, for a great article! You’ve covered a lot of ground, and done so in a way that doesn’t point fingers, which I consider to be a real accomplishment. While most of what you discuss I’ve seen before, it has always been in the context of a polarizing, polemic, agenda-driven diatribe, i.e., somewhat off-putting. This piece, however, kept me engaged, and your exploration of the broader driving factors and systemic effects was excellent!

Tina Sieber

Thank you Greg!

I’m glad I could keep somewhat of a balance. It’s easy to sway one way. I tried hard to explore as many sides of the story and perspectives as possible. It’s complex. :)

john matheson

great article with some light and the end of the tunnel, i like that.. but do economics not dictate that producers will always be asked to put quality aside.. not everyone can afford to buy quality.. is it not the same when you look at cheap supermarket chickens, a few will opt to buy the expensive quality free range from the butcher but the mainstream of the public will still go for the cheaper ’42 days to plate’ version.

Tina Sieber

Define cheap.

Option 1: Food that costs very little, is contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones, and contributes to malnutrition.

Option 2: Food that costs a little more, is full of good nutrients, free of harmful stuff, and contributes to a balanced diet.

In the long term, option 1 is more expensive as it makes people sick, meaning they are less productive and cause high health care costs. And this doesn’t even take the food production into account.

The world is not going to change over night and it will never be perfect. My hope is that there is a shift in values along with the change in consumer behavior we are already seeing. People who see the big picture will go with quality over price. The demand rules the market.

dragonmouth

Spoken like a true idealist. In an ideal world you are 100% right. However, we live in a real world. When a mother has only $20 or $30 to feed her entire family, she will definitely buy according to price. If she pays $5.99/pound for free range chicken and $3.99/pound for organic potatoes, her budget may only buy one or two meals. If she buys $.99/pound chicken legs and 5 pounds of potatoes for $1.99, she can stretch her food budget to cover the whole week worth of meals. When health problems occur in 20-30 years, she and her family may be able to afford the treatment, or maybe by that time there is universal health care so that the government will pick up the tab.

It is very easy to be environmentally and socially responsible and eat healthy when one earns enough money to pay for all of that. When one lives paycheck to paycheck, one does it the cheapest way possible. If the choice is between starving and the environment, the latter will always lose. Sorry but that is the life in the real world. Ask your parents or grandparents how environmentally and socially responsible they were during the two World Wars. Did they only eat free range chickens?

Tina Sieber

Yes, as an idealist I see the world the way it can be, despite the way it is. I see the good, despite all the misery. It doesn’t mean I don’t see or understand reality; I do more than I would like to. What it means to be an idealist is to have enough imagination to see potentials and help them become reality.

My ancestors rebuilt Germany after WWII because they wanted it to become a better country than it was. They wanted a better future for their children and they have succeeded. Germany is not perfect, but at least it is trying to be socially and environmentally responsible.

James Bruce

During the war, people grew their own damn chickens! That’s what we need to get back to. Kitchen scraps to the pigs and chickens, eggs everyday, and lots of lovely manure for the veg.

Max

Thanks for this! It’s great to see environmental messages like this on a tech website.

Trenton Keyser

I tend to re=purpose an item when it fails with its original task. salvage useful parts and hardware is a methode i use often

null

The deeper story is very troubling especially for the next generations in fact the very next. Toxic waste is something not reusable as far as I am concerned. So as long as people buy, mines will be dug, and old devices will be tossed. Interesting fact: My cell phone cost more than my tablet and laptop put together.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

What cellphone are you using?

Lisa Santika Onggrid

An insightful article. I miss this kind of long features from MUO.
I don’t have so much money laying around, therefore I’ll use my gadgets till they break. However, it’s getting increasingly easy to find excuse to replace your current gadget because everything comes in high speed. I’m attached to my gadgets, especially since I always spend so much time to customize it, tweaking it to suit myself.
It’s ironic that you mentioned we’re losing so much valuable metals while gadget is getting cheaper and cheaper. I can buy an Android phone with the same price as my old monochrome phone (remember those? seems like ages ago).
I think we’re taking things for granted now, indulging in our desire for the latest and greatest that we forget the actual intention of owning an electronic device.

Charlie O.

So, first an apology. Yes I baited Bruce and yes it was overly dramatic, but not at all untrue. As I’ve gone over this with people in the past, I more often than not, have painted a target on my back. As such, I have a tendency to either keep it to myself, or wait to mention it depending on the relationship I have with the person I want to tell. But this really does have to do with Tina’s article, so bear with me. First, a few brief disclaimers – offered with no proof. Take em or leave em.

I’m not a luddite, or a technophobe. I am religious, but I derive a serious drive to study and act in the defense of the Earth and in defense of all the organisms on it because of my religion. As such, I consider holistic methods to be key, but I don’t subscribe to much of the hype, fads and mostly PSEUDO-SCIENCE that has permeated that term and the fledgling holistic industries that are desperately trying to distinguish themselves in opposition to the ignorant and seemingly all powerful established industries that put statistics above people. To atheists: please feel free to substitute terms like ‘evil’ and ‘demonic’ with more acceptable phrases like “a bad choice” or “much, much less healthy to all concerned”. I don’t believe that God loves someone who doesn’t know about Him any less than He does me and I have biblical precedence that He honors those who do the right things regardless of their understanding of religion, God or the organizations that try to connect us to Him. And THAT will lead us right into the next bit…
The founding fathers of my country (The United States of America… not ‘America’) had it right. The idea is not just ‘freedom’ and ‘Democracy’. It’s the freedom to use democracy to allow us to work to improve ourselves. That really is the bulk of what they wanted for us (by way of example – not as a refugee camp), and for all the people of the world. The resultant conglomerate of ideals and laws that started my country were the best attempt to protect that one central idea that the FFs could muster and, in its inception, it still is the best thing going. Now a quick word about the founding fathers. If you put 20 people in a room, statistically speaking, 2 of them have to be jerks. But even a jerk can be right. I mention it because if you read the FFs, you’ll find contradictory information. They argued, but what they agreed on is what we have today. The founding fathers were not an all knowing, cohesive core of Americans. They were traitors to the crown. (cap.? Crown) But they were also very educated at a time where education was MUCH different than today, and they fairly represented the will of the majority of the rest of the traitors in the colonies. They knew that a strait democracy could be manipulated into a totalitarian state*, though they would have used the term ‘tyranny’, and the ecological facts on uno-sapian (my term) leadership is – it’s evil. It will never take into account the planet, the plants, the animals or anything but itself because it is not in the nature of the rest of us to be subservient, so the top dogs have to, and always have to, spend whatever they can to stay on top.
So, what did the FFs give us? A republic. Its government by law. Yes, the people control the law and yes it’s a democratic process here, but not necessarily everywhere else. The point for them was that there is enough power in the people and the communities they create to address the needs of the immediate and fringe situations that demand instant reaction, accounting for the fact that these situations lie outside the vastly normal and boring bulk of our temporal existence. Therefore, we make laws and when they don’t need to be changed, we live our lives quietly and in peace. When they do need to be changed we invoke the process and, in the end, the right thing will be done IF we don’t shortcut the process. How does that work? It’s called PATIENCE. You wait, watch, measure, think and THEN act. It is my opinion AND assertion that if we had delayed the implementation of all new technologies by a set amount of years, proportional to the financial benefactors’ expected impact (let the bureaucrats work out a plan for that, that’s when I actually want a bureaucrat.) on society, we might not only have avoided outrageously stupid, evil behaviors (like putting mercury in vaccinations, et cetera.) but we would eventually teach ourselves and the corporations who work for us (giggle) to STOP expecting a solution to everything right NOW. With that as a fundamental principle, represented somehow in the law, and owing to it, we would have adopted a different attitude and even a different national identity. But the understanding of the potential for the actual speed of development beginning with the Industrial Rev. was about 75 years (or so) off from the constitutional framers and we were lead to believe that this – THIS would be better. It’s not. NO ONE looks at the big picture, or too few of us do to matter. We want comfort. Not just material comfort. Cranial comfort. We don’t want to think for ourselves. It’s not too hard to supplant any nationalistic argument about why we’re (insert your 1st world country here) the best with another based on the innovation of the time. “We’re the best cause we have stealth bombers and iPhones” – rewind, “cause we have nukes.” – rewind, “cause we have nationally mandated public education”, “cause we have coast to coast rails.”, “cause we have gatling guns.”, “cause we beat the Spanish.”, “cause we beat the French.”, “cause we beat the British.”
Yes! Yes, try to be the best, but if you’re not doing it for the betterment for all, then you’re doing it for position and having to have people (PEOPLE!!!) under you is a broken system. It’s building your house on the sand. (religious reference intended) Building it on the LAW is the rock. Wait, the bible mentions the law and even uses it interchangeably with God. Well, sorry people. You don’t have to believe in God for Him to be a force in your life and you don’t have to believe in the train to get off the tracks. The ancient Jews were constantly trying to do things their own way and they were constantly paying the price for it. The historical accuracy of this statement has nothing to do with the principal behind it. Every successful empire (like the ones Israel was trying to be like) is a warning for us today. Power tripping kings, tyrants and democratically elected elite (no matter how handsome they are) continue to spread their power and influence until it they fail and what happens when the pendulum swings the other way is NOT FUN! What the FFs gave us was a way to secure our freedom through adherence to the law and the pinnacle mechanism we were meant to protect (which we have basically thrown away like a styrofoam soda cup) is the FREE EXCHANGE of IDEAS.
Finally, when the government provides your security**, your policing, you education, your jailing, your communications (umm… reading this are you?) your insurance, financing, currency, and in every aspect that’s privately run, your standards – you are not free. Freedom is bartered by the rich and powerful today. I don’t hate or even mind having rich people around. Having to deal with people who have more or less than you is God’s way of saying, “Try not to take yourself too seriously.” Trying to eliminate rich people with wealth distribution ultimately leads to rich government people redefining ‘rich’, and usually with a rifle and a clipboard. Ecological sustainability is rooted in vigilance and you can’t be vigilant if you’ve traded your rights to any organization in exchange for an assumed benefit which they can negotiate on your behalf. That goes for the government, the unions, insider clubs (not MUO, I mean ‘orders’ and frats – people that give preference to their own based on stupid discriminators like, “Well, he pays his dues.”) and radical organizations who blow things up. These should be ‘use in case of war only’ institutions OR “belong to us ‘cause we’re doing something that matters better than the other guy, but don’t count on us to fix your life.” clubs where secret deals would be eliminated. If you want to favor someone with help or charity, WHY ARE YOU HIDING IT? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to lie. Pretending you’re better than anyone else because of your associations is lying.
Only with this nonsense out of the way will we have our vision cleared to see the sense of recycling, or better, manufacturing for reuse. Only then will we see through the lie of perceived obsolescence. Only then will we be able to generate a real feeling of ownership of the earth and its inherent problems, without having to be told to do stuff under threat of fine or worse. Only then will people who serve in the military not have to be lured there by college money only to find out that they lost a limb for an inflated degree and no job. Only then will our children see that adults are actually worth honoring (4th) and stop believing child-geared media that teaches them to separate from adults, but imitate adult behavior. This is not how I feel. This is how I think. It’s based on living all over this country, traveling to other countries and patiently listening to both scrutiny and praise. It’s based on being reared in Philadelphia and actually spending time walking cobblestone streets, reading the stuff on the monuments and touching the Liberty Bell. No super power transference, but touching something engenders a feeling of connection, and maybe of responsibility to understand, and protect it. I suppose that’s why we’re not encouraged to see the places where our stuff comes from or ends up.

*I posted in an MUO article about copyright law being used to stop people from using their phones the way they want to, what Franklin said about our brand new government, “What we have given you is a Republic… if you can keep it.” or words to that effect.
**read Ian Toll – Six Frigates. US citizens were almost ready to re-revolt over the appropriation of funds to start a federally run navy. Many argued THEN, that the federal government would use an organized military to install a new tyrant.

Peter Lydon

Super article. eWaste has to be THE waste management issue now and into the future.

mieszko200

There is not only Earth Day to think of our planet! We have to safe it.

Leland Whitlock

I am one of those who likes to use his devices until they break and even repair them if they do. I have also helped many friends do the same over the years. Of course sometimes you do need something faster or better but more often then not we replace items just because we are impatient. Of course the internet has really helped in keeping devices running longer than they were designed for because it is so easy to find parts unlike the past. I love the article and think my wife will too. Thanks.

Tina Sieber

It would be so nice if devices (or anything for that matter) could be easily upgraded or at least fully recycled. Since I’ve been fully aware of the damage waste and production are causing, I have been struggling every time I buy something new. It sure makes me use things longer.

I wonder whether that’s another reason why people beyond their 30s or 40s make due with old stuff. Maybe it’s not just that they can’t be bothered to learn a new technology or stay up to date with trends and fashion, maybe it’s that they have realized the impact consumption has, i.e. very little in terms of quality of life and happiness.

Leland Whitlock

This is why I bought a special driver for my Palm TX to be able to use SDHC cards in it when it did not offer this function out of the box. It allowed me to expand my memory beyond what Palm engineers allowed. Sure it was an extra $20 but then it has allow me to use my Palm much longer than its normal expected life and it is still a very useful device. Sure I now have an Android smart phone but I still make use of the Palm for some things to this day. Plus I could pass it on to someone when I am ready to move on. I believe in making my devices and computers work. Usually simple little software additions like that driver allow this to happen. The key is knowing what to look for or finding someone who does.

All of this comes from my family and upbringing where waste not want not was the guiding saying. I suppose it is a leftover from the depression era but to me considering the staggering population of the earth we need to better use what we have and not waste anything as we will run out of resources some day…

Tina Sieber

…considering the staggering population of the earth we need to better use what we have and not waste anything as we will run out of resources some day…

Wise words Leland, I couldn’t agree more!

Prateek Jain

Both the intent and quality of the article is top notch and addresses the issue of e-wate from all perspective. Keep up the good work. Articles like these make me come back to Makeuseof.com again and again.

Tina Sieber

Thank you Prateek!

Geoffrey Richardsn

Great article, Tina! I have resisted moving to an iPad or a new phone for some time, but my current one has just stopped dead – won’t charge or squeak! Recently my 8 yr old printer baulked and can’t be repaired – no spare parts remain. An interesting question, though, is what will people work at if we make goods that last? The only answers I have seen come from Science Fiction, and amount …….DO NOTHING!

Tina Sieber

I don’t think people will do nothing. There is always something to work towards, something that is difficult to achieve – improving your health, advancing education, exploring the world, generally realizing your dreams.

Right now, those short-lived products are satisfiers for needs that people don’t know how to meet in any other way. Maybe they are lacking mental freedom and thus creativity to imagine a different life or they are truly satisfied because they are oblivious to the downsides of their way of life. They are literally stuck in the rat race or caught up in their ways of thinking.

I’m no different by the way. It’s my upbringing within this culture and it’s hard to escape that drive and adopt a different lifestyle. But I can see how the collective awareness and consciousness are changing.

If you need a new phone and can wait until the fall, look into Fairphone.

Rex

Desktop computer manufacturers are the worst. Proprietary components in their systems don’t allow easy end user upgrades. For instance the cases they use don’t allow a motherboard upgrade since the mounting holes for their boards are located in different locations than the ones on MB’s sold at retail locations for the system builder. Power supply on a Dell goes out, don’t expect to walk into the store and buy one of the shelf and install it. Not going to happen. I remember when processors were soldered to the MB and I thought why. But of course they are socketed now to allow some upgrade possibilities until the processor manufacturer decides to do a redesign. Sometimes I feel there is collusion between MB and proc manufacturers to make components obsolete after a certain time period so the MB manufacturers don’t get left out in the cold. Imagine if you could buy a MB and exchange components for say 15 years and still have complete compatibility across all configurations. The MB manufacturers would fold until the procs changed enough to require a new MB. That would use far less resources and employees wouldn’t be jumping off roofs. Just my two cents.
By the way I have used the same case, DVD drive/burner, sound card and larger HD’s for the last 10 years. I hate feeding the corporations and do everything in my power to support the small guy fighting against Wally world and their ilk.

Andres Mendez

“I can see how the collective awareness and consciousness are changing.” Yes it is, Tina!

Here’s what us latins are doing for it :)

http://youtu.be/mNH6pFwJSAw